It is not really so strange to catch a glimpse of a bunny rabbit bounding across the grassland or peeking out from behind an object in the landscape, its ears attuned to any sound that might represent danger.
But it's a little odd, you have to admit, to find a giant metal blue bunny head, with ears erect and eyes wide-open, protruding from a cluster of sweetgrass in Riverfront Park in North Charleston alongside a pathway, standing its ground, stiff in its opposition.
Or maybe not.
After all, this is the ninth year the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department has populated the park with such sculptures, enhancing this pastoral enclave with art and inviting visitors to muse over the often quirky and creative designs.
The National Outdoor Sculpture Competition and Exhibition is part of the city's annual Arts Festival but also somewhat distinct from it. The festival, a nine-day pageant showcasing arts and crafts, performances and more, runs May 2-10, but the sculpture in the park stays put for nearly a year, to be exchanged with new pieces next spring.
The competition has been attracting more and more artists each year, according to Arts Coordinator Anne Trabue Nelson, who organizes the event.
Sculptors from 14 states (as far away as Texas and Maine) have submitted works for consideration this time, and 11 have been selected by the juror for installation this time around, Nelson said. (Last year, there were nine; the most accepted in a single year was 14.)
Each year, one wins best in show, and its maker gets a $1,000 prize. An "outstanding merit" designation worth $500 also is awarded, along with three honorable mentions each accompanied by $250. Artists are eligible to receive a $1,000 honorarium to help defray manufacturing and transportation costs.
This year's juror, responsible for selecting participants and winners, is Brad Thomas, director of residencies and exhibitions at the McColl Center in Charlotte.
Marty Besancon, cultural arts director, said her office pitched the idea of incorporating outdoor sculpture when Riverfront Park was still in its conceptual phase and expected to be part of the Noisette Company's grand redevelopment plan.
The park was built with a number of padded platforms meant to support sculpture installations. The city was very supportive, Basancon said.
"Foot traffic is great," she said. "Some go out just to see the sculpture."
Over the years, some artists have donated their work to the city. Three pieces are permanently on display in the park.
"Some artists now make pieces with our park in mind," Nelson said.
Outdoor sculpture is hardly an original idea, and Riverfront Park is far from the first public space to host art. The Hirshhorn Gallery on the Mall of Washington, D.C., includes a lovely sculpture garden, and the Rodin Museum in Paris offers visitors a chance to think about "The Thinker" under the trees.
One of the most famous, and largest, sculpture parks is the Storm King Arts Center in New Windsor, N.Y., along the Hudson River.
And just up the coast in Murrells Inlet is Brookgreen Gardens, another big venue featuring a large number of works strategically situated under the oaks and by the fountains.
The initial selection of 11 pieces for this year's North Charleston exhibition has been made, and already artists are coming to town to install their work (and carry away previous sculptures).
Some of the works are pedestal pieces, others use a concrete base or are embedded in the grass, Nelson said.
The juror considers only the submitted sculptures, without reference to previous years or other pieces made by the same artist, she said. Depending on the juror, sometimes quality is the primary criteria, sometimes it's the narrative or theme that captures his or her attention.
"Sometimes a great piece is turned down because it's not a good fit," Besancon said.
The bunny, by the way, is called "Bunny," and it's one of Jeffie Brewer's fantastical creations. It won last year's "best-in-show." This year, Brewer will load his Ford F-150 with "Cloud Rain 2," another of his whimsical works, and install it in Riverfront Park for the amusement of spectators.
The artist, who hails from Nacogdoches, Texas, and teaches graphic design and drawing at Stephen F. Austin State University, works part-time making illustrations for an advertising agency he co-owns with his wife.
This partly explains his tendency to make "cartoony" pieces informed by his graphic design work.
"Cloud Rain 2" is 11 feet tall and 500 pounds, teal blue and plain. The stylized cloud part, supported by shafts of "rain," looms overhead like clouds tend to do.
Brewer, 42, said he's willing to drive the 1,000 miles from Texas, with a fluttering red flag attached to the extended end of his artwork, in order to seize the opportunity to show his sculpture in North Charleston. Exhibitions like this can lead to recognition and sales, he said.
Living with it
Artist Carl Billingsley, 70, who teaches at East Carolina University in North Carolina, has entered the National Outdoor Sculpture Competition and Exhibition several times.
The piece selected for display this year is called "P.C. Column." The "P.C." does not stand for "politically correct" or "personal computer" or "primary care," he said. It stands for "powder coated" because the abstract, fabricated steel sculpture is power coated.
"Some of what I do with my sculpture is like design problems that I solve, getting the maximum bang for the buck, getting the most out of the materials," Billingsley said.
He likes to work with sheets of metal, bending it so it looks different from all directions.
"It's abstract work," he said. "It's not supposed to represent anything else, but it certainly has to be something that engages you. People tend to go toward imagery, they tend to go toward things they're familiar with. But I want to get people involved with something they might not get involved with otherwise."
He said this impulse is probably related to his educator's sensibility.
"I've always been very active as an educator," Billingsley said. "As an artist, I believe I should be practicing what I preach. So I keep an active exhibition schedule."
And he likes the opportunity shows like this one offer to get feedback from viewers, he said.
The North Charleston exhibition gives the local residents an uncommon chance to engage with art located not in a gallery or museum but within the urban landscape, he added.
"What better way for the public to encounter contemporary art," he said. "They don't have to love it. They can live with it for a year. The public takes ownership when it's in their environment on regular basis. Kudos to North Charleston for doing it."
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‘Bunny’ A piece by Jeffie Brewer of Nacogdoches, Texas. This piece won best- in-show last year.×
‘The Dance’ A piece by Davis Whitfield of Sylva, N.C. This steel sculpture was part of the 2013-14 exhibition.×
‘Tumbling Toward the Sun’ A piece by Gary Gresko of Oriental, N.C. The piece was part of the 2013-14 exhibition.×
Artist Jeffie Brewer stands by his “Cloud Rain.”×
Carl Billingsley’s “Red Center,” an outdoor construction made of small flags, was featured in the Cottesloe “Sculpture by the Sea” exhibit near Perth, Australia. Billingsley is a North Carolina artist who has participated in North Charleston’s National Outdoor Sculpture Competition and Exhibition several times.×
Jeffie Brewer is partially obscured by his giant “Bunny.”×
‘Lunar Landing’ A piece by Wayne Trapp. It is part of the city of North Charleston’s permanent collection. The artist donated the work in 2008.×