Artistic Oasis 

Collaborative sculpture garden to offer colorful gathering place on Music Row

Collaborative sculpture garden to offer colorful gathering place on Music Row

Sixteenth Avenue South is not noted for its leisurely pace, as anyone who veers down the straightaway stretch to the now familiar roundabout knows. The music industry buildings and plazas are often a mere blur to drivers. However, by the end of this summer, a brightly colored landmark will be in place to catch the eyes of passersby and perhaps encourage a slow-down-and-smile attitude.

The Oasis Center, a well-known counseling, educational, and emergency services facility, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the installation of an outdoor sculpture garden on the front lawn of its Music Row headquarters at 1221 16th Ave. S. Bell Buckle artist Sherri Warner Hunter is putting the finishing touches on Nashville’s newest public art project, “The Gathering,” a four-piece “interactive” grouping of oversized concrete and mosaic-tile figures that form a generous—one could almost say joyous—seating area. The finished work will be exactly what the name implies: a place to meet, talk, contemplate, and commune.

The interactive nature of the sculpture is literal: Many hands have played a role in creating the work-in-progress. For several weeks, Hunter has been joined by scores of Oasis Center volunteers of all ages at a rented Chestnut Avenue studio. After initially gluing together huge blocks of Styrofoam and then carving the resulting structures with a wire wheel and electric drill, she applied a coat of fiberglass and concrete matrix to ready each piece for the mosaic treatment. Once the basic figures were completed this spring, Hunter invited teenagers, young children accompanied by parents and grandparents, and adults to adhere thousands of tiny multicolored ceramic and glass tiles to the enormous forms, each ranging in height from 2 to 8 feet.

Young and old apprentices have been manipulating tile saws, mixing grout and glue, wielding hammers to shatter tile, and painstakingly sanding the seemingly random ceramic and glass pieces into precise shapes—under Hunter’s careful supervision. This is tedious, sometimes frustrating work, but with a big payoff; as the process continues, patterns emerge in warm, earthy colors. Bright whorls loop around the large concrete figures, suggesting facial features or patchwork clothing—or the random colors of an unidentified, but friendly, animal. Hunter estimates investing more than 50 hours per week on the project. In late August, these androgynous human and anthropomorphic figures will be arranged in a large seating area, inviting viewers to step into the sculpture and sit on its collective lap.

The sculptor’s work is easily recognizable. Hunter, recently the author of a design book on her own artistry, has long been fascinated with bright organic forms worked in concrete and intricate mosaics. Her always-colorful pieces, arranged into totemic figures or amorphous shapes, are laden with rhythmic, hypnotic patterns that often give prismatic effects, reflecting light from tiny mirrors, bottle caps, or shards of porcelain. Many of her collaborative projects with area youths are scattered throughout the city, from Ensworth School to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to the Nashville airport.

“This particular work is more representational than many of my previous works,” Hunter says of “The Gathering.” “But the pieces are designed to be open for translation. It’s been an interesting process to explore these forms on this scale.”

Given the charge to create a work that reflects the philosophy of the center as a safe environment where kids and families can work on problems, as well as a place for volunteers to contribute to a sense of community, Hunter quickly embraced the idea of involving youth in the project. “One piece of the garden, the ‘Loveseat Mama,’ I hope embodies the feeling of being surrounded with love and caring,” she notes. “Working with the volunteers has been very special for me, because it gives the teens a sense of ownership of the art; it’s their chance to make the community a little brighter.”

Funding for the ongoing project has come from notable sources, including substantial grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Predators Foundation, The Country Music Foundation, and the Metro Arts Commission. Individual contributors of $1,000 or more are invited to create their own mosaic stepping stones, which will surround the seating area. Former Oasis Center executive director Ronnie Steine, who initiated the project with Hunter, believes “The Gathering” will become one of the “signatures of Music Row.” A work of art signed by many hearts and hands, the sculpture will be touched by many more in years to come, and enjoyed as public art is best enjoyed—by using it.

Cindy Steine serves on the Metro Arts Commission.

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