It’s an early Friday morning on the front lawn of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium, and artists Nyssa Collins and Carson Whitmore are piecing together the rebar skeleton of their 10-foot iguana. The sculpture is one of five pieces created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Galápagos Science Center (GSC) as part of a collaboration between the Center for Galápagos Studies and Arts Everywhere.
As Collins and Whitmore bind wire mesh around the rebar frame, a line of elementary students walking past the installation site stops to gawk at the gigantic iguana taking form. Eventually, they start asking Collins and Whitmore questions. It’s precisely the reaction Kathryn Wagner, associate director of Arts Everywhere, was hoping for.
“I have a toddler, and he’s curious about everything,” Wagner says. “The thought of a little kid seeing a blue-footed booby created in wood and upcycled materials, asking how it’s connected, asking what it means. What kind of animal is it? What does the animal eat? Where does the animal live? Why is it important to know about this animal? Is it an endangered species? It’s all the things that you can talk about as you get curious about this random piece of sculpture that’s sitting on a university campus.”
The project’s origins can be traced to a year ago, when Kelly Weaver, director of external affairs and communications for the Center for Galápagos Studies, went out for a walk around campus. As she strolled past some of the outdoor sculptures, she remembered how much she loved the giant teapots outside Ackland Art Museum. And that memory connected to a thought about the GSC’s upcoming 10th anniversary. Although the GSC is physically located on the island of San Cristóbal in the Galápagos, the staff was looking for a way to bring the anniversary celebration back to Chapel Hill to include the campus at large.
“This idea came in my head: What if we had some sculptures of Galápagos animals?” Weaver says. “They’re so charismatic, and I feel like a lot of people don’t know that we have this center. I started this role about two years ago, and I worked at Kenan-Flagler beforehand, and I didn’t know about the Galápagos Science Center.”
Weaver brought the idea to Steve Walsh, founding emeritus director of the Center for Galápagos Studies and GSC’s director at the time. He told her to run with it.
“I started Googling art on UNC’s campus, and Arts Everywhere popped up. I decided on a whim to reach out to Kathryn Wagner. She was really responsive and loved the idea.”
The two got to work launching the project. First, they formed an artist’s selection committee with campus stakeholders like Don Hobart, associate vice chancellor for research, and Mike Piehler, UNC sustainability officer and director of the Institute for the Environment. Then, they formed criteria for the sculptures, created a prompt, and put out a call for artists. The pieces had to represent an animal native to the Galápagos and incorporate upcycled or recycled materials in their construction.
In the end, the committee selected six artists to produce five sculptures. Galápagan artist Isaac Delgado was commissioned to create a marine iguana sculpture outside the GSC research facility on San Cristóbal. Charlotte-based artist Nico Amortegui pitched the concept of a giant tortoise whose shell would be decorated with found objects. Local artists were represented by the Durham-based Collins and Whitmore; Paul Estrada, a Carrboro artist who teaches at Chapel Hill High; and Chapel Hill artist David Hinkle, a landscape architect.
The Collins-Whitmore team decided on an iguana. Estrada created a 10-foot-tall cormorant — a large, squat flightless bird — out of wood and plastic bags on display outside the FedEx Global Education Center. Hinkle carved a blue-footed booby out of salvaged cedar on a base of reclaimed cinder blocks and wood from whiskey barrels to be placed in the Coker Arboretum. The blue-footed booby is a bird synonymous with the Galápagos islands whose feet and bill are a shade of Carolina blue.
Evolution of an idea
At the outset, the project was intended to celebrate the 10th anniversary of UNC’s research facility in the Galápagos. But as the project evolved, many of the stakeholders began to see more significant themes emerge. For Phil Page, assistant director of the Center for Galápagos Studies, the project illustrated the broader connection between art and science. In a former career, Page worked as a scientific illustrator. He learned that one of the unseen challenges facing researchers is communicating results. It’s often difficult to find a way to visualize data and convey complex scientific principles to a general audience.
“Science, when we describe it in prose and in words, we can communicate the numbers,” Page says. “We can communicate many of the details, but in order to really allow anyone — laypeople, other scientists — to fully understand what’s being communicated, we really need pictures of some kind. We all respond well to images.”
Estrada experienced this from the artist’s perspective and approached his piece like a science experiment.
“That first third of the project is just trying it to see what happens,” Estrada says. “I started with small little models trying to make it stand, trying to have it balanced, trying to have it stand on two feet without holding it up. It was a journey of balance and form.”
For Hinkle, the project’s prompt to use upcycled material took on a particular poignancy after an incident he described as a “moment of serendipity.” Last fall, he was driving home after dropping his daughter off at UNC. He turned onto Columbia Street, expecting to see a familiar mural depicting sea turtles on the side of a parking garage near Rosemary Street. Instead, he was shocked to find the whole structure being demolished. Hinkle immediately stopped, entered the construction site, and asked the foreman if he could collect the discarded pieces of the mural. He reached out to the mural’s original artist, Michael Brown, to receive his blessing and then incorporated those salvaged pieces into the base of his sculpture.
“I had a connection with the mural itself, and I had a connection with the material once it was demolished,” Hinkle says. “There’s a lot of emotions. I was very sad to see the mural on the ground in pieces. But then I was very excited that I had an opportunity to get some of the blocks and incorporate them into the piece that I was doing.”
Weaver believes the project will help forge connections between the Chapel Hill community and UNC’s work in the Galápagos by raising awareness about the research center.
“It’s really eye-opening for students and even for our own staff and the community to understand that we have the only university research facility down in the Galápagos,” she says. “It’s probably never going to be replicated, and it’s a really unique gem that UNC is part of.”
Page shares those sentiments and hopes these sculptures will bring awareness that will grow into a passion for science in the Galápagos. He imagines a feedback loop where the students of today, who view this art, will become the scientists of tomorrow, making the discoveries that inspire more art.
“One of the amazing things about this Arts Everywhere project on campus is that we are bringing pieces of Galápagos beauty here for our students, the public, and our fellow scientists to look at,” Page says. “What we hope is that, in the end, the connection is made between these examples of what’s so amazing about the Galápagos and how our students and our scientists can get involved.”