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Socrates Sculpture Park’s Emerging Artist Fellowship encourages sculptors to take risks

Hugh Hayden's 1965 Ford Mustang, with braided racing stripes, revs up the park in Long Island City.
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A 1965 Ford Mustang with braided racing stripes. A transparent Buddha floating just off the shore in the East River. The Virgin Mary cast in bird seed. These are just a few of the intriguing works a visitor will encounter while strolling through Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. They are part of the organization’s latest Emerging Artists Fellowship Exhibition, an annual program it holds each year to spotlight some of the most creative and compelling emerging sculptors working.

Now in its 12th year, the fellowship provides artists with a $5,000 commission and a residency in the park’s outdoor studio, including technical support from the staff. Though the definition of “emerging” can vary, with some sculptors as relative newbies and others with a long exhibition history, few if any have done any outdoor work on this scale before.

“It’s one of the most unique situations probably in the city and even in the country,” says John Hatfield, executive director of the park at 32-05 Vernon Blvd.

Also unusual is the level of openness to the creation and installation process. The park is open 365 days a year, allowing for the public to see the progression of pieces as they take shape.

“In some cases, when an artist is doing something very site specific in the landscape, the installation of the work is happening while people are visiting the park,” says Hatfield. “Invariably a dialogue ensues between the artist and the public.”

He gives the example of Jarrod Beck’s Quarry, a massive plane of charred wood elevated about six feet above ground. As Beck prepared the piece, many passersby asked about the material and what the final work would look like. They had to wait and see.

This piece, as well as the other sculptures in the exhibition, also had to play off of the park’s setting, including the dazzling skyline just across the river.

“You have to make something that can stand up in that huge open space with Manhattan in the background — how do you compete with that?” says Emerging Artists Fellow Ben Hall, a recent graduate of Columbia who now lives in Detroit.

He answered that question by spending every dime of his $5,000 grant money on plywood, creating two stacks that were eventually donated to the nonprofit group Build It Green. The project aimed to raise questions about how economies are created, and when art becomes or ceases to be art.

This year’s batch of 15 sculptors hail from around the country and globe but is skewed heavily to New York City residents. A curatorial panel selects the artists from applications turned in by early January. Hatfield then makes the decisions on the final lineup, with an eye toward ensuring a dynamic show rather than any specific unifying theme.

The sculptors then have access to the studio beginning in May, and the final exhibition opens in September and runs through March.

Not only does this residency allow for interaction between the artist and the public, but also for exchanges between the artists themselves.

“Artists tend to be social creatures, so as things went on, we wound up getting to know each other and built a range of relationships,” says exhibitor Brent Everett Dickinson, who did much of the preliminary assembly of his piece outside of the park before spending about three weeks completing it at the studio.

Dickinson’s multi-media installation features a pulpit that emanates bird squawks from hidden speakers. It draws inspiration from the story of an 18th-century gunpowder manufacturer named Adonijah Peacock, creating abstract allusions to theology, etymology, and Dickinson’s own hometown, where Peacock is buried.

Of course, such public exposure for the sculptures can create challenges as well, and the park works with the artists to make sure their pieces are installed securely. Briarwood, Queens-based artist Cui Fei had to rethink the structure of her piece — bronze casts of grapevines in the shape of Chinese manuscript — to ensure it would be able to withstand the curious hands of park visitors.

“At the beginning I didn’t really have a base, and just put the characters on crushed stone, but with lots of kids playing in the park, they might grab the stones and throw it, so we made a more permanent base out of cement,” says Cui. “The cement was new to us, and the conditions of working outside were much harder, but the experience was rewarding.”

The decision proved a wise one, as this past fall, it wasn’t just kids the sculpture had to withstand, but Hurricane Sandy. Thanks to the caution and advice the park’s team had given the artists, only one sculpture was blown down in the storm (the steel crown sculpture by Melissa Calderon), though it was easily reassembled.

More details about this year’s exhibit, including the park’s first-ever e-catalog, can be found at www.socratessculpturepark.org.

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