On a windy morning in South Jacksonville Beach, several dozen people were on hand to witness two forces of nature collide as a summertime nor’easter, with winds gusting more than 25 mph, ran head on into the indomitable spirit of inspired, youthful creativity. The rare summertime front was, in fact, a perfect test for the five large and vibrant sculptures crafted by University of North Florida students and installed in what is now called the University of North Florida Seaside Sculpture Park. The park, on the corner of First Street and Fifth Avenue South in Jax Beach, is on display throughout a yearlong public art installation, thanks to a program sponsored by MountainStar Capital (a locally based private equity group), and the Lazzara Family Foundation. 

Even in the washed-out morning light of stormy Northeast Florida, Mary Ratcliff’s sculpture Symbiosis cuts a vivid image, bending and twisting its way into the air like the severely overgrown stalk of a blue succulent. Capped by a fiery, orange sphere equipped with LED lights powered by solar panels, Ratcliff’s creation may be best observed at night.

“The most challenging aspect [of the project] was creating the sphere,” says Ratcliff, who is a senior at UNF working toward a BFA with a concentration in sculpture and a minor in professional education.

Ratcliff grew up in Southeastern Ohio and her proximity to the ocean during her years at UNF has influenced her artwork. “My sculpture is inspired by the ocean. More specifically, the symbiotic relationships of sea life,” she says. “Symbiosis is an abstracted representation of a sea anemone and clownfish,” she says of the two oceanic species that rely on one another for protection and nutrients.

Ratcliff and the other four students — Gillian Harper, David Peters, Emily Pinnell and Diana Shepherd, whose sculptures will stand roughly 100 yards from the ocean (depending on the tides) for the next 12 months — were chosen after a proposal process that included the construction of scale models. From there, over the course of two semesters, with guidance from their professors Jenny Hager and her husband Lance Vickery, the students navigated the process from budgeting to construction to installation, and everything in between.

“There is a ton of problem-solving in creating large-scale works,” Ratcliff says. “You have to learn that plans change and you really must stay fluid in your execution and construction. Some things work and others simply do not. You have to think about the transportation, installation, structural integrity and longevity of the piece.”

Because the structures would be exposed to high winds, heat, and indiscriminately corrosive salt air, Hager says longevity was an especially singular consideration.

“We put a powder coating on the steel structures because it holds better than paint in certain elements,” Hager says of the color finishes applied to the sculptures. “Also, going from small-scale models to large scale, there are structural considerations — like winds — that often require more supports or different efforts that you hadn’t anticipated.”

A different effort Hager cites as an example is the forklift that was required when it came time to work on a new side of David Peters’ large abstract piece, Ode to Franklin County.

Hager says she can’t overstate what a remarkable experience this project provided this group of students. Beginning with the selection process, which included presentations to a committee that included members of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, UNF Student Affairs Council, and citizens of Jacksonville Beach, among others, the holistic project was meant to mimic the process in the professional realm. “The students got an experience that was very close to what they would go through in the real world,” Hager says. Each student, in addition to receiving $2,000 for materials, also earned a $500 stipend for their participation. And, after a year, the students will be allowed to sell their pieces.

“This project is one of the few that I’ve ever heard of that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to create large-scale sculptures. That’s usually unheard of,” Hager says, adding, “These kids are pretty spoiled.” 

Hager hopes to repeat the process with a new group of students again next year. “I think everyone is really pleased with how the park turned out. It’s a great addition to the arts community and it would be fantastic if we can secure the funding to make this
a rotating park.”