Wild Sculpture

Wild Sculpture

An 18-foot sculpture of a heron made by Allison Baker MFA 15 SC is one of the newest artistic installations at Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Standing in a patch of unruly wildflowers near a slow moving tortoise, Allison Baker MFA 15 SC breathes a heavy sigh of relief. Using both brains and brawn, the graduate student successfully stands upright an 18-foot steel sculpture welded into the likeness of a long-legged heron. It’s an impressive feat, as the modular piece weighs more than 700 pounds.

“It is incredibly nerve-wracking to erect a sculpture of that scale. An engineering failure can be fatal,” Baker admits. But I’m very cautious to minimize risk in the metal shop.”

The elegant structure is the newest artistic addition to Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo, a popular regional attraction that is also one of the oldest zoos in the country. Given that zoo curators jumped at her offer of the sculpture, Baker’s towering heron now overlooks more than 40 acres that are home to African dogs, harbor seals, green anacondas, pink flamingos and close to 100 other fascinating species of rare animals. On a recent visit to the zoo, the artist was tickled to see small children running along the wetland trail abruptly halt and look up, surprised by the lofty bird and transfixed by its texture and stature.

“I like public sculpture because it has a real physical presence,” explains Baker. “It’s surprising—and sometimes jarring—for a viewer to stumble across something unexpected or uncanny. And it naturally attracts a much larger audience than most galleries could ever provide.”

Baker created the heron in response to an assignment about modularity in the fall Metal Fabrication Studio, a course taught by Chris Sancomb 93 SC, an adjunct faculty member in Sculpture. With a red-hot torch in hand, she routinely worked into the wee hours in RISD’s foundry fusing together thin rods and slats of curled metal. To make sure the piece remained portable, she inserted socket joints in the bird’s body to connect 80-pound wire legs.

“There was a lot of steel rebar and welding work that went into making this beautiful, giant bird,” notes Sancomb. “It has intricately crafted feathers that blend into its head and neck and the end result was a clever use of existing materials.”

New graduate Rob McKirdie MFA SC 14 is also donating a piece of alloyed art to the zoo. The native of Salt Lake City recently wrapped up work on a steel sculpture of a pangolin—a scaly mammal that could easily be mistaken for a tiny anteater. To make the animal’s sturdy armor, the sculptor used a plasma cutter cut out segments of sheet steel. He then dyed the small pieces a pale shade of gold and carefully welded them in layers meant to formulate scales. The sculpture is nestled next to the Asian black bear and dromedary camel exhibitions.

“The pangolin rolls up into a ball when it’s threatened and is the only known animal to produce scales made out of keratin, which is the same material that makes up human hair and fingernails,” McKirdie explains. “I thought it would be worthwhile to give this endangered animal some exposure.”

Lou Perrotti, conservation programs manager at the zoo, agrees, noting that “raising awareness of the crises so many species are facing, including the 18 endangered or threatened species we help sustain here at the zoo, is the first critical step to leading people to care enough to save them.”

For Baker, this isn’t the first time her work has been introduced to the outdoors. A couple months ago, she installed a clear Plexiglas cage in front of a church in downtown Providence. She also plans to place her oddly intriguing furniture—tables and chairs that appear to be sprouting children’s legs—in city parks.

“As an artist, I feel like I have more autonomy and control when I make universally accessible art,” Baker says. “You don't have to wait for a gallery or a curator to show your work. I can go out and bolt my art to the earth in a field whenever I want. That’s a liberating feeling.”

—Abigail Crocker

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