Artistic Experiential Learning at the University of North Florida
By Jessica Borusky
For most people, public art is our first engagement with art. Whether that be through discreet sculptures, monuments, and/or memorials, art in civic spaces provides individuals and communities an opportunity to reimagine their lived, everyday experience; to carve out new forms of knowledge about place, architecture, and the body.
While art in the public sphere offers a direct connection to art objects, the study and practice of public art often remains shrouded by seemingly arcane and bureaucratic processes—rendering many artists without the opportunity or means of entering into a method of their studio practice that may deeply inform their conceptual work and broaden material processes. Producing public art is a bold, yet humbling, process—working with new people and perspectives and learning to adapt to changing conditions, politics, and communities. As a field, public art is still seldom taught within academic institutions; many civic and public artists find their way into that type of work through other avenues such as grant writing, expanded exhibition opportunities, or commissions. So, as the University of North Florida (UNF) unveils new public sculptures made by students of the Art, Art History, and Design Department at the Seaside Sculpture Park and James Weldon Johnson Park, it is worth noting that this opening celebrates both the university’s adherence toward experiential education and its leadership, nationally, within the field of public art practice at the undergraduate level.
UNF sculpture professors Jenny Hager and Lance Vickery started these sculpture parks in 2016, after observing a dearth of public art practice within the Jacksonville region when the couple moved here in 2006 for Hager’s appointment at UNF. Seaside Sculpture Park, located in Jacksonville Beach, is funded by MountainStar Capital and the Lazzara Family Foundation (Chris Lazzara and Jessica Wynne). The site was residential property and converted with assistance from Chris Hoffman, the current mayor of Jacksonville Beach. The program grew to James Weldon Johnson Park in 2019 and is supported by Friends of JWJ and Preston Haskell. Both parks provide students with the opportunity to learn about civic art and engagement, timelines, budget, proposal and fabrication processes, installation, and collaboration. Projects typically take one year to design and develop, and sculptures are auctioned off after deinstallation to sustain future sculptural projects.
In the fall semester, students create three maquettes for Seaside Sculpture Park and present the best proposal in a four-minute PowerPoint presentation to a selection committee comprised of UNF faculty, members of the Lazzara Family and Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, and beach residents/community members. During the spring semester, students execute, build, and install the large-scale version of their proposal. Select scholarships help support the materials, production, powder coating, and installation of artwork. While proposals for the Seaside Sculpture Park bears no particular theme, students are often inspired by the location: drawing figurative and material connections between the ocean and the atmosphere of the area into their process.
Student artwork shown at James Weldon Johnson Park follows a similar timeline, but with annual themes including local flora and fauna and bridges (literal and metaphorical). Initially, this partnership garnered one sculpture a year for five years, but sustained funding from Haskell has allowed the project to grow, now commissioning three pieces per year. Initially, three concrete sculpture pads were installed in the UNF Sculpture Garden; two are now being added to this ongoing park. For this site, students can own their sculptures after deinstallation for other exhibition opportunities, and pieces are leased for one to two years for $1,500 to $3,500 a year. The selection committee for this site includes UNF faculty, Preston Haskell, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA) staff, members of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, downtown residents, and community members.
The entire process: responding to site/community, developing concepts, sketching, creating maquettes, developing a professional presentation for the proposal, committee review, fabrication, and installation engenders an incredible professional opportunity for students who wish to work within the field of civic, publicly engaged art. Furthermore, the process allows students the ability to actualize their ideas while still in school. These unique and ever-changing sculpture parks also provide the greater Jacksonville community and its tourism added physical and cultural features to preexisting spaces—showcasing art outside gallery and museum walls.