Art for the People: Rebecca Carlton’s public-arts projects cross state borders

Standing in the gallery of Juddville Clay Studio Gallery amid several ceramic sculptures, abstractions and tall vases, Rebecca Carlton described how she and her husband, sculptor Tony Staroska, cleared the space last year when they shut down the gallery during the pandemic.

Gesturing to the wall behind her, she said that was where she had hung large drawings for her most recent project: three steel sculptures of two circles each intersecting at right angles – so six circles in total – showing creatures of the earth, sky and sea. 

“Sonoran Circumvolution.” Submitted.

Called “Sonoran Circumvolution,” the pieces stand 12 to 15 feet high, and the disks are seven to 10 feet in diameter. Made of Corten steel, which rusts to a dark reddish brown, they sit west of the Tucson Mountains in Arizona, on the way to the Sonora Desert Museum and along an equestrian trail that runs all across the city, where Carlton and Staroska used to live.

“Since I couldn’t be in Tucson, I had lots of Zoom meetings with all of the committee members,” Carlton said. “I’d have all these drawings, and then I’d carry the computer around to show them the drawings on the walls.”

Working remotely with people nearly 2,000 miles away was a challenge. A printer in Green Bay scanned the drawings to provide the computer file that the laser cutter would need for the project.

“I had huge, 10-foot-long tubes filled with drawings and scans that I sent to my fabricator,” Carlton said. “They took each one and translated them, and then for six months, we communicated back and forth as there were changes and adaptations.” 

The animals on the disks range from bighorn sheep on a mountain to microscopic shrimp, a peregrine falcon and a bat. 

“The species are a tribute to Sonoran Desert fauna,” Carlton said. “A lot of the species in this are endangered, but then they’re also migratory to the Sonoran Desert and so that whole idea of movement, of change, of growth – I wanted to really capture that feeling. 

“The circle is all inclusive as well. I like to use a lot of universal metaphors in my work, and people may see them or they may not.”

Carlton’s “Sonoran Circumvolution” being installed in Tucson. Submitted.

One side of the flying images is day, and one side is night. The water species are depicted swimming in a circle. Some of the animals will be familiar, but others will provoke questions – or at least that’s what Carlton hopes.

The sculptures were part of a much larger roadway-improvement project that involved Pima County, the state of Arizona and federal highway money. It was funded through laws that assign 1% of large capital-improvement projects for public art.

In May, the sculptures were installed on concrete pedestals low enough for ADA-mandated access and with embedded lights that will illuminate the artworks without violating the area’s dark-sky rules. In a collaboration that was unusual for Carlton, she worked with structural engineers who examined the pieces for the effects of wind shear.

You might be wondering whether this kind of work pays well.

“It was not an hourly wage you’d want to jump at,” Carlton said, “but it will probably lead to some other work.”

And that is often the nature of public art. Carlton subscribes to three services that announce new public-art projects.

“I really like working with communities and with individual clients. I feel as a human being I grow more when I listen to people’s ideas and through that process translate their ideas into work.”

She has another piece of public art in Tucson: ceramic dragons at Homer Elementary School. The dragon is the school’s mascot, and her murals are called Dragons of Character because they display character traits such as cooperation, perseverance, integrity, common sense, respect and responsibility, which are taught through the school’s core curriculum.

Carlton’s donor wall at the new Pete and Jelaine Horton Center Skilled Nursing Facility at Door County Medical Center in Sturgeon Bay.

These 10-foot-long dragons are made of clay tiles that are incised, carved and then painted by students to occupy two outside walls that were built for them in 2008. 

Closer to home, Carlton was selected to create the 13-foot-wide donor wall at the new Pete and Jelaine Horton Center Skilled Nursing Facility at Door County Medical Center in Sturgeon Bay. She used images of Door County – bluffs, water, flowers such as trilliums, a garter snake, 3D butterflies, hummingbirds and, of course, cherry trees – on the clay mural that is 10 feet tall, but low to the floor so that all residents can touch it.

Currently, Carlton is working on four-foot black angel wings called “Trouble the Water” to commemorate the Biloxi wade-ins in Mississippi from 1959 to 1963. Led by local physician Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., nonviolent protesters were threatened by police and attacked by white mobs when they tried to use popular city beaches. Carlton is creating nine wings that will be named for each of the participants in the first protest.

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