Students launch work on art trail project funded by McMahon-Pleiad Prize

In a workshop on the campus of The University of Alabama, student Ringo Lisko is beginning to create what will become an 8-foot bronze sculpture that features the Alabama state flower and transmits a message about personal growth in a supportive community.

At The University of Alabama at Birmingham, a student team is fabricating a sculpture that subtly evokes themes of interaction, harmony and progress through shared strengths.

Meanwhile, a group of students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville has produced 3-D renderings of a sculpture that will showcase iconic symbols of Alabama in commemoration of the state’s Bicentennial.

While all these projects are different, the pieces will come together later this year as the elements of a public art trail linking the three campuses, made possible by the inaugural McMahon-Pleiad Prize awarded by The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees.

“As this project aims to unite the UA System campuses, I see the students’ participation as an exceptional opportunity to develop their professional practices as public artists,” said Stacey Holloway, assistant professor of sculpture at UAB.

“The sculpture departments at UA, UAH and UAB all have very different strengths that are being represented in each public art sculpture, which will exhibit the overall substance of the UA System’s programs,” she added.

Established by the Board to honor Trustee Emeritus John J. McMahon Jr., the McMahon-Pleiad Prize aims to advance collaboration within the System, consistent with the vision and leadership of McMahon.

The prize includes a $75,000 one-time award, underwritten by the McMahon family, which will be shared equally among the three UA System art departments to cover the cost of project materials and related expenses.

“Because these works will be permanent, this opportunity will serve as an inspiration to students and faculty for years to come. I hope it might kick-start a public art initiative across all three campuses,” said Chris B. Taylor, assistant professor of sculpture at UAH.

Scheduled to be unveiled in June, the three outdoor pieces will rotate among the campuses for two years, then return to their home campus for permanent installation.

McMahon-Pleiad Prize
University of Alabama student Ringo Lisko poses with a quarter-scale model of a bronze sculpture she is creating for a UA System public art trail funded by the McMahon-Pleiad Prize.


Lisko, a junior sculpture student at UA, likes the idea of her work being on display as part of the art trail on the Birmingham and Huntsville campuses before taking up a permanent residence the sculpture garden on the Tuscaloosa campus.

“I’m excited for it to be in different places for a long period of time,” she said. “Other people who normally wouldn’t be here will get to experience it.”

Craig Wedderspoon, professor of art and sculpture at UA, said Lisko is in the early stages of bringing her sculpture to life. In January, she cast a 70-pound, quarter-scale model of the piece that will help shape the final design.

“The model will help her work out the logistics of the size of the flowers and where they should be placed on the sculpture and how to fill in spaces to make it look right compositionally,” he said.

Lisko said she selected the camellia for the sculpture because of its association with Alabama and the integral connection the three UA System campuses and the state.

“I’ve worked with flowers a lot, so it is in keeping with that theme. It’s a crescent shape, an incomplete circle, to signify growth, which I think is a big part of the university campus mission to foster a community and prepare people for their futures,” she said.

Her project is time-intensive. Wedderspoon estimates Lisko will put in more than 500 hours on the sculpture before its completion, even with a helping hand from other students.

McMahon-Pleiad Prize
A UAB art team gets feedback on the sculpture it is planning for the UA System’s public art trail. (Image: UAB)


At UAB, senior studio arts majors Elizabeth Gioia, Eric Powell, Chase Prater and Anthony Smith received design feedback for the sculpture they call “Unfurling” from a review committee representing university departments and local sculptors, Holloway said.

The team’s final design calls for a curved form based on the Fibonacci spiral, a mathematical sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding ones. Holloway said the team intends this to suggest progress and constant growth.

A raw, unfinished steel surface on the piece will be polished and transformed, illustrating the role that the System’s three institutions play in preparing students to weather challenges and find success, she added.

In addition, the student team’s concept calls for plexiglass panels in the iconic colors of the three universities – red, blue and green – to be fitted to the piece, allowing light to filter in so the colors can interact.

“The piece will create a visual dance of light and line that is aesthetically appealing and represent each institution, individually distinct, but working together and building upon one another to shape the paths of its students’ futures,” Holloway said.

McMahon-Pleiad Prize
UAH professor Chris Taylor stands with members of the student team working on a sculpture for the UA System public art trail.(Image: UAH)


At UAH, a student team led by Eric Poole has finalized a CAD drawing for its piece, called “The Porch,” and will get engineering advice before moving forward with a final design. In March and April, the team of 15 upper-level students will be given assignments and begin creating the sculpture.

Taylor said the piece will represent a 4-by-6 front porch, standing 8 feet tall.

“The porch will be a stage for symbols that are important to the state of Alabama. A yellowhammer will be perched on the roof, a boll weevil will be crawling on a rail, a bowl of peanuts and a basket of cotton will sit on the porch. There will be some hidden symbols for viewers to find as well,” he said.

Taylor said the public art trail project captures the spirit of collaboration that is at the core of the McMahon-Pleiad Prize.

“Sculpture is an inherently collaborative field. Rarely are sculptors working alone — they normally work in shops and are always helping each other accomplish projects,” he said. “Working with Craig and Stacey is a great privilege because they are strong voices in the world of sculpture and bring a ton of experience to the table. I immediately thought it would be a great opportunity to work collaboratively with both of them.”

The UA System has issued the call for proposals for the 2019 McMahon-Pleiad Prize.  The deadline for submissions is April 30.