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Sculptures by the Sea

Crowd at the Sculptures by the Sea opening

Mary Ratcliff was thrilled when she saw the giant orange orb glow atop her sculpture in the Jacksonville Beach seaside park. The solar panels she designed to light the globe were the first she’s incorporated into a sculpture, and while she was pleased to view her finished artwork against the night sky, she was even more relieved that it actually worked!


Ratcliff’s sculpture is just one of five created by University of North Florida sculpture students being displayed for a year as part of the Seaside Sculpture Park in Jacksonville Beach.


Sparks were flying at the park’s unconventional ribbon cutting ceremony in June where one of the artists, Gillian Harper, sliced through a metal ribbon, using what is often a large-scale sculptor’s tool of choice — a blowtorch.


The creative opening clearly reflected the creative partnership that made the park possible — a collaboration between the University’s Student Affairs Community Council, Department of Art and Design, MountainStar Capital and the Lazzara Family Foundation. Use of the land for the year, as well as irrigation, lighting and funding for materials, was donated by MountainStar, with $500 scholarships for each artist provided by the Lazzara Foundation.


According to Dr. Debra Murphy, chair of the department of art and design, the sculptors were selected in a highly competitive process. Eleven students each produced a maquette — a small scale model of the proposed sculpture — and discussed their work, construction techniques and safety issues before a committee that included UNF art professors, a representative from the Student Affairs Community Council, local artists, a Jacksonville Beach City Council member and a member of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.


In the end, five projects were selected. In addition to Ratcliff’s “Symbiosis,” other sculptures featured include Harper’s “Ongoing Life,” “Still Swimming” by Emily Pinnell, “Wild Bird” by Diana Shepherd and “Ode to Franklin County” by David Peters.


Selected sculptors each received $2,000 for their project — half for materials and half for painting, surface treatment and prepping the sculptures for display.


While “hands-on experience” may seem like a given for those studying sculpture, the caliber of projects that undergraduate art students get to participate in at UNF is far beyond the norm.


“This type of opportunity is a rarity in most undergraduate programs where such projects would be reserved for advanced graduate students,” Murphy said.


Ratcliff, a senior who has already created a bike rack sculpture on campus, as well as a sculpture for the library, agrees and said it was this kind of experience that attracted her to the program.


Students install Sculptures by the Sea exhibit “Creating the site-specific artwork for this project was exciting,” Ratcliff said. “I really liked the idea of customizing my design for the beach location. It’s great experience and prepares you for the real world where you may be hired to create something for a specific purpose in a specific location.”


According to Jenny Hager, associate professor of sculpture, the student sculptors were responsible for just about every aspect of the project from sourcing materials to working with vendors to the logistics of installation. 


“This gives them an edge because, as undergraduates, they have just completed a project on par with a professional public sculptor,” Hager said, adding that displaying their art in a place where the public can enjoy it is also an incredible opportunity. “It’s icing on the cake,” she said. 


Hager and her husband, Lance Vickery, an adjunct sculpture professor at UNF who also worked with students on the project, are particularly excited because they live in Jacksonville Beach. Hager assisted them through the proposal process, while Vickery worked with students as they built and installed their massive sculptures – one is estimated to weigh more than 1,200 pounds. When it was time for installation, Sims Crane and Neiman and Company provided gratis crane services to move the giant pieces.


“The scale of this project posed difficult and unique obstacles, but we have phenomenal students who always rise to this type of challenge,” said Vickery.  


The park, located at 480 1st Street South in Jacksonville Beach, was carefully planned out, with landscape design by Rhonda Gracie, a horticulturist with UNF’s physical facilities department. The finished project was a beautifully designed, unique park that fits perfectly at the beach.


Dr. Mauricio Gonzalez, vice president of student and international affairs, said the project was a great example of how one family can make a huge difference in a community. “We are so appreciative of the Lazzara’s vision and understanding of the value of public art, as well as the desire to showcase works of talented UNF students to the beaches community,” Gonzalez said.


Sculptures by the Sea exhibit The Lazzara Family Foundation has been a staunch supporter of the arts at UNF for years including support for the Lazzara Performance Hall, which is named for the family. UNF President John A. Delaney said providing opportunities for the sculpture students is just another example of their generosity. “Because of their passion and enthusiasm for the arts, the Lazzara family has provided a forum not only for our talented students to display their creative artwork, but also a beautiful space at the beach where the public can be inspired,” President Delaney said. 


Chris Lazzara, CEO of MountainStar Capital, also serves as the chair of the community awareness and outreach committee of the Student Affairs Community Council. “The hard work and dedication of these sculpture students is inspiring to us,” Lazzara said commenting that the finished park is a perfect public-private partnership to help art students share their talents. “Our hope is that it will encourage similar gifts from private individuals and companies and spawn new public art in Jacksonville Beach and beyond.”


For the students, having their artwork out for people to enjoy is what sculpting is all about.


“We are so fortunate to have such strong support from local businesses and the community,” Ratcliff said. “Not only do we have amazing opportunities to create art, we also get great feedback from people in the community who seem to really appreciate what we do.”


There is no doubt that the mission to create public art and the community’s support motivated the students throughout the arduous and often challenging process.


“These sculptures are the products of their commitment and unrelenting efforts,” Vickery said. “I’m in awe of each of them.”