Fired by collaboration: Artists and industry partner to improve public spaces

July 1, 2011 11:14:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"It''s as labor intensive -- but as simple -- as you can imagine," said Tanner Coleman. The sculptor stood back, assessing progress on a three-ton brick artwork he and his wife, Alexis, have invested heart and hands in for the past few weeks. Smudged faces and clay-crusted fingers attested to the long, hot hours put in that day.  


The couple work deep within the recesses of Columbus Brick Co., off Military Road. There, acres of metal buildings envelop a network of railcar lines and imposing machinery. For more than a century, craftsmen have produced literally millions of bricks at the local yard. 


In an extension of that process, the Colemans are turning raw Mississippi shale and clay into a mini-park centerpiece, thanks to a partnership between arts and industry.  


The sculpture in progress was commissioned for the new Haire Wealth Management Green Space in downtown Tupelo, but the collaboration that birthed it is a model for any community. 




What could be 


As most good ideas do, this one began with a spark from one person with vision -- landscape architect Shipman Sloan of JBHM Architects in Tupelo. Shipman saw a neglected space near his office and thought it could be turned into something beautiful.  


"This has been Shipman''s brain child; he deserves all the credit," said William Lewis, managing principal of JBHM in Tupelo. Enthusiasm for the project spread. JBHM, a frequent community volunteer, contributed the time and expertise for conceptual drawings and to get approval and funding processes underway. 


" ... It''s the essence of what we do as design professionals, as architects and landscape architects, bettering the built environment. This is our home, and we take great pride in our hometown," Lewis said. 


The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association was on board. Haire Wealth Management generously stepped in to provide means. And, once Tanner and Alexis were selected for the commission, Columbus Brick Co. donated raw materials, studio space and use of its massive industrial kiln. 


"It''s just a real nice bond between art and industry," praised Tanner "We love working in here, hearing all the bells and whistles, the guys working and the machines. These guys have been so nice; they''ve taken us in, given us materials ... You can see the potential of artists coming in and doing something for public spaces in Columbus." 




Good neighbors 


Family-owned Columbus Brick Co. has been quietly supporting the ceramic art world for a number of years. 


When asked about that interest, company president Al Puckett offered, "You know, I think people (often) think our process out here looks very mechanical, very much like it''s all science, technology and a set recipe. But there''s a lot of art inherent in what we do."  


He continued, "The fact is that we go out and find something in the ground that''s not a vendor-supplied, quality controlled material; we take that and make that into a brick. This stuff doesn''t always behave the same when we form it or apply temperature to it. ... It''s an art form. And these folks (clay artisans) understand that; they''re working with the same medium. ... As a good corporate citizen, it''s something we enjoy supporting." 


The sculptors are grateful for materials, workspace and kiln all under one roof, a luxury often unavailable when they work in smaller, private studios. 


"This brick came from here; it wants to be fired in these kilns," said Tanner. 




Coming home 


The recent past has taken the Colemans far afield -- to museum and art-based residencies in South Korea and Thailand. After the current sculpture is installed, they will move on to projects in Australia, followed by others in Taiwan. 


"It''s really nice to be home, to be in the U.S. and to be so close to our families," said Alexis, who hails from Atlanta. Tanner grew up in Tupelo and attended Mississippi State University before earning his degree in sculpture at the University of Georgia. His mother, Janice Campbell Coleman, graduated from Mississippi University for Women in the mid 1960s; his sister, Lucy, finished there in 2003. 


"It''s especially nice to be making a piece in a place where we have a lot of pride," said Alexis, who received her degree in ceramics at the University of Georgia and a master''s degree at California State-Long Beach. 




Hands on 


In the designated "studio" space at the brickyard, flat railcars resembling solid, super-sized pallets on wheels are stacked high with "green," or "wet," blocks of clay. About 800 of them went into the sculpture measuring 7 1/2 feet tall and about 4 feet in width.  


"When we first started putting it together, it was basically a Lego construction," said Tanner, a recipient of an individual artist''s grant fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. 


With specialized tools and great patience, husband and wife painstakingly transformed the mountain of raw clay into the overall shape of a water drop or raindrop. Designs of flowing water and clouds were added. Their concept represents the history of the new green space site, one of Tupelo''s first water and TVA power storage locations. 


Both artists are talented in other mediums, but clay brick is their collaborative niche, one rich with possibilities for functional public art, such as bench seating, planters, archways, water features and wall murals. 


"Brick allows us to build any shape, any form; the limitations are very few," explained Tanner, watching as Alexis slowly circled the sculpture with a sprayer, evenly wetting the surface to keep the clay from drying out. "It kind of reveals itself as you work with it, and takes the piece where it needs to go. ... But there''s no part of the process that''s fast." 




End stages 


Ironically, the sculpture will soon be disassembled before firing, a process that will take four or five days. Reassembly and installation in Tupelo is expected to take about a week. Then, the new green space will be well on its way. 


Sharing a philosophy applicable everywhere, Lewis of JBHM stated, "Designing places that are attractive and that are good places for people to interact in a community is what helps it thrive. You create spaces where people will be happy to be, and they stay to window shop, eat in the restaurants, go to the book store ... you create that thriving downtown environment that doesn''t shut down at 5 when people get off work." 


The green space is only one small piece of the puzzle.  


"You have to engage these processes one step at a time," he said, "whenever you have an opportunity to make an improvement in one piece of the community -- and you start knitting those pieces together." 


For the Colemans, it''s all about doing something bigger than themselves. 


"To me, being a sculptor means being a public artist, an architectural ceramist, object and mold-maker, potter, foundry-man, welder, and carver," expressed Tanner. "I''m very excited about the idea of working in the walls of any industry and to be a part of history." 


For Alexis, "The improvement of human spaces fuels my desire to create. ... The greater reason we do this, as corny as it sounds, is that it''s a way of making a difference in communities and impacting people''s lives."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.