What is the nature of public art? Can it be functional as well as artistic? How does it both represent and serve its community? And how do its creators express themselves within the practical constraints of resources and budget?
For locally based artists Andrea La Valleur-Purvis and Morgan Eyring, who created the six steel light globes that comprise “Luminary Spirit,” those were burning questions to tackle with their project partners. The functional art installation is a collaboration between the artists, the Texas Department of Transportation [TxDOT], the City of Waco and the arts nonprofit Creative Waco, with input from Waco citizens. The light spheres portray aspects of Waco’s culture, character and history with themes of wildflowers, architecture, transportation, artisan businesses, river wildlife and the city’s unique beverages.
Each four feet in diameter, the six globes are hung at a height of 12 feet from the plaza floor under I-35 between Fourth and Fifth Streets, and feature LED lights that come on at dusk and stay on until dawn. The city provided theme and mission guidelines within the context of the larger I-35 upgrade; TxDOT provided the steel frameworks and engineering specifications; and Creative Waco managed the contract and work with the artists. The Texas Commission on the Arts provided a grant to fund signage that acknowledges the artists and describes the themes, with a QR code that viewers can use to access more information online. La Valleur-Purvis and Eyring interpreted the themes artistically, and then cut individual designs out of 20-gauge steel with a CNC [computer numerical control] machine, which automates tool movement through embedded pre-programmed computer software.
TxDOT had worked on other highway lighting projects, particularly one in San Antonio that was another welded artistic lighting piece. At the beginning of the project, they and the City of Waco, with its Engineering Department in the lead, met with the public several times to gather input on how to specifically combine art with usability.
“One of the things that came out of the [public input] process was a desire by the community and Baylor to create more of a pedestrian and cycling pathway under the highway between Fourth and Fifth Streets,” said Fiona Bond, CEO of Creative Waco. “There was a general feeling from the community to make the space more inviting, safer and better lit. A number of ideas were discussed, but what came out on top was the idea of an integrated lighting system that would also be art.”
Once the idea was defined, the city contracted with Creative Waco to serve as project manager and liaison with the artists. The nonprofit worked on specifications with TxDOT, who provided the steel frames and bolted fixings that had to be engineered to absorb the vibration of the heavy traffic above. The artistic elements would then be welded onto those heavily reinforced globe frames by artists as yet to be selected.
Creative Waco’s team wrote a design brief describing the project’s goals and general specifications and began the artist selection process by putting out a Request for Proposal [RFP] to the artistic community of Waco. La Valleur-Purvis and Eyring responded individually to the RFP with their ideas for artistic execution, but ultimately, they were both selected with the directive to create three globes apiece.
“Several artists pitched their ideas, but Andrea and Morgan rose to the top by each doing such a good job of interpreting the design brief,” said Bond. “One of its key elements was to represent different aspects of Waco, and they gave us lots of different options. They each proposed several themes, and three design concepts from each artist were chosen. We tweaked the themes and ideas, and then they went and fabricated the pieces. Throughout the project, Creative Waco served as liaison between the artists and the city.”
Andrea La Valleur-Purvis
Born in the United Kingdom to a British father and American mother, Andrea La Valleur-Purvis was a toddler when her family moved to Germany, where she lived until she was 18.
“I knew I wanted to be an artist from a young age,” she said. “My mother was a photographer and journalist. I was always drawing, making things and instead of getting dolls for my birthday, my dad bought me a kid-friendly tool box. I still have a stack of artwork that I made and sent to my American grandmother. My mum entered my work into a competition when I was 5 or 6 and I won. Since then, I’ve learned a lot of different art disciplines, and it’s allowed me to make a career of it.”
La Valleur-Purvis came to the U.S. for college, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts [BFA] degree in sculpture from the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“The program allowed me to experiment across many art media, including design, painting, printmaking, photography and various forms of sculpture,” she said. “One thing I didn’t learn in art school was the business side of being an artist. So over the next 20 years, I learned by doing. I’ve taken additional classes, certificates and earned a post-grad degree. Most of what I know now, I learned by doing it.”
She earned a post-graduate degree in design thinking and innovation from MIT, Tuck and Columbia Universities, and holds a number of certificates from IDEO [a global design company with studios around the world] and Sotheby’s Institute of Art. After two decades working as a designer and creative director for top tech brands, she now helps emerging visual artists building the business side of their studio practice through the consulting business Vivid Creative. Past clients include Telecom Infra Project, Communication IQ, Facebook, Amazon, FareCompare and Microsoft.
“Many artists are good at making their art, but struggle to implement simple business and marketing strategies to make a consistent income from their work,” she said. “In the past, you needed a well-connected gallery to move your career forward, but today you can represent yourself and succeed as an independent artist — and keep 100% of your revenue. Our main focus is to help artists think like entrepreneurs and act like marketers. We do this through one-on-one consulting and our podcast and newsletter, ‘Art Biz Talk.’ I split my time across my studio practice, my consulting business and podcast.”
As for La Valleur-Purvis’s route to Waco, it was circuitous, to say the least.
“During the pandemic I was living in Spain, where restrictions were very strict,” she said. “I wanted to buy a home and plant myself in a community, but realized Spain was not that place. While on a business trip to Texas in September of 2021, I drove to Waco to look at homes and ended up making an offer on the last one. Six weeks later, I moved to Waco from Spain with my life packed up in two suitcases.”
La Valleur-Purvis’s artwork on her own time is now primarily 3-D, incorporating found metal objects with wood and forged metal, using welding and other metal fabrication methods to create tactile compositions.
“My design experience helped me produce mock-ups and create cut-ready files for the globes,” she said. “Many of the pieces were designed in Adobe Illustrator, and imported into an Auto-CAD program that was connected to a plasma CNC [computer numerical controlled] machine. That saved so much time rather than cutting everything manually.”
The pieced-steel globes’ play of light and shadow was up in the air, though, until actual installation.
“We experimented a little with a lightbulb in our studio but weren’t really sure how the shadow patterns would interact with the bridge structure and surrounding infrastructure,” said La Valleur-Purvis. “I’m pleasantly surprised by the different patterns, especially when you stand directly underneath each piece.”
After growing up in the rural countryside of Homerville, Ohio, an hour south of Cleveland, Eyring entered the University of Cincinnati as an engineering major but graduated with a BFA degree in sculpture and painting.
“I’d wanted to do art since I was a little kid, when I was making sandcastles, mud pies and fridge art,” she said. “I learned to weld in college, in the sculpture studio. Creating is an outlet for me: an emotional outlet that’s also stress-relieving. Things can be jumbled in my brain, where I’m trying to make sense of an idea, and being able to make something concrete and build it releases that energy. The first step is the hardest, like taking the first brush stroke to a blank canvas, but then it starts the domino effect of creativity. I let a piece take its own shape as I’m creating it.”
Her last semester in college, she got a job working for a call center whose parent company was contracted by universities around the world. She ended up being sent to Baylor University, where she worked in development for a year. After leaving that job, she began working part-time as a creative lead and ‘Jane-of-all-trades’ for LINE Handcrafted, a local custom-handmade goods studio, and part-time for Nickell Metalsmiths as a fabricator and installer.
After a year of working both positions part-time, in 2019 she focused on her career at Nickell Metalsmith, where, as a skilled welder and CNC machinist, she now serves as lead designer and project manager.
“I’ve expanded into a role that focuses on specialty fabrication, design and project management,” she said. “Every day presents new challenges, opportunities and experiences — all of which serve me in many facets of my life, including as an independent artist.”
Eyring’s previous professional artwork includes a two-person exhibit at Cultivate 7Twelve Gallery, a standing bar and bar back commissioned for One Day Bar and custom-made clothes racks and mirrors for Magnolia under the umbrella of Nickell Metalsmiths.
“I want to stretch the limits of my abilities and skills — it’s fun to be expected to deliver a specific product and challenge myself to create something unique that’s maybe out of my comfort zone,” said Eyring. “I love working with metal, but am willing to work in all kinds of media beyond that. As a sculptural artist, I love blending metal with wood and glass to create something new. I have a lot of career left where I can keep growing and creating.”
Though 20 years apart in age and at different stages of their careers, La Valleur-Purvis and Eyring became fast friends as well as collaborative colleagues over the course of their year-long “Luminary Spirit” project.
“This [project] was the first time I’ve worked in a studio with another artist in a professional setting, and it was amazing!” said Eyring. “Andrea and I bounced ideas off each other and motivated each other every day during the 12 months we worked on it. We also helped each other out physically: a four-foot metal sphere isn’t easy to move, and neither are four-by-eight metal sheets. The design of our three globes each were a good balance of independence and collaboration — Andrea’s and my skills balanced each other.”
La Valleur-Purvis and Eyring were nominally acquainted when they began collaborating on the project. Though in the early days, the artists’ conversation centered on planning, execution and timing, La Valleur-Purvis concedes that their near-year together covered a lot of “life events” and brought out what they had in common. Both volunteers at Art Center Waco, their conversations often turned into philosophical discussions of art, their lives and dreams — and then would jump back to practicalities such as what gauge of steel to use for specific designs and how to bend them around the sphere framework.
“A globe is made up of gores with skinny sections at the top and bottom, and wider in the middle, so the pieces had to have curvature to follow the globe shape. I had to experiment with different thicknesses of steel,” said Eyring.
“After we each learned about getting the commission, we immediately started collaborating on aspects of the project,” said La Valleur-Purvis. “On the globe project, Morgan and I each worked on our own pieces, but we often worked during the same times in the studio, so that was the fun part. We could bounce ideas off each other, get real-time feedback, help each other with certain tools, and then have lunch together. At different points of the project, Morgan led with tools and fabrication expertise and likewise, I jumped in when preparing presentations, writing statements and project coordination.”
Creating Public Art
Though the artists planned for the globes to be painted varying colors of Texas wildflowers, the project’s original installation in May was halted when city officials saw that the colors were brighter than they had realized. The partners put their heads together to find a solution that everyone could get on board with, and the spheres were repainted and installed in September in shades of blue for the Texas state flower.
“There was definitely a positive lesson learned there about how to keep communicating throughout the process,” said Eyring. “It really expanded my professional communication skills and even with some challenges, allowed us as artists to build great relationships with the City and Creative Waco.”
La Valleur-Purvis echoed the positive outcome of the collaborative process.
“We’re all professionals,” she said. “We had some hard conversations, found a way to hear stakeholder feedback and worked with Creative Waco’s team to propose a new solution that everyone liked. The most positive parts of the project for me were building a deeper friendship with Morgan, seeing our work as part of Waco’s city infrastructure and collaborating with Creative Waco across multiple initiatives.”
And then there is the nature of public art itself and how “Luminary Spirit” fits into the broader picture of representation and accessibility to the community.
“Art sparks so many ideas and creativity within people,” said Eyring. “The exciting thing about public art and specifically this project is that to enjoy it, you don’t have to buy a ticket or even be intentional about seeing art that day; it’s just available to you. Something special happens when you just come across art in your daily life; casual encounters are oftentimes the most meaningful.
“This was my first public art project and I’d like to continue to pursue more opportunities for public-facing work,” said Eyring. “Creating commissioned work is a really rewarding process; at the end of the day, you deliver a product that’s specifically made for someone, or in this case for many people. You get to share in the excitement and see all your efforts — your blood, sweat and tears — culminate into something concrete.”
La Valleur-Purvis is on the same page as her friend and co-collaborator Eyring, stating that “art is for everyone. Artists have an important role in communicating ideas, cultural or political perspectives, transforming space, bringing beauty into the world. When I’m in an environment that’s thoughtfully put together, I want to spend more time there.”
Beyond providing more light for a safer environment and bringing art to an otherwise plain space under the freeway, “Luminary Spirit” serves as a metaphor for Waco’s hemispheres on either side of I-35.
“That space is really a gateway to the two different parts of our city: from the main part of the city to Baylor University, or from Baylor to the city, depending on which direction you’re going,” said Bond. “Waco itself is a place of crossings, from some of its earliest beginnings and the Chisholm Trail crossing the Brazos River. [“Luminary Spirit”] is also at a crossing place: it adds layers to the idea of what it means to cross from one place to another.
“We’re incredibly grateful that we have a city that actively supports public art as a powerful tool for creative placemaking — the role of creativity in creating spaces that encourage human interaction in an urban environment,” continued Bond. “Public art has the capacity to change the ways we see places and people and is a really powerful way to change the way we interact with underused and underappreciated places in our community. Public art helps us feel more connected with the things that we share, that make our community more distinctive.
“This project has been embraced so quickly,” said Bond. “We got immediate positive response from the leaders and members of Church Under the Bridge, which meets in that outdoor space for its Sunday services. It’s a perfect illustration of something that can be shared by all people of Waco, from wherever they come.”