Eight young creative types in flannel shirts and baseball caps scurry back and forth along the dusty, cluttered floors of MGA Sculpture Studio, each with designated task and determined purpose. Everyone plays a role in the ongoing fabrication of two massive steel pieces destined for the soon-to-open new St. Petersburg police station.
Mark G. Aeling, 51, is the sculptor, the studio owner and the watchful eye of this hurricane of artistic activity. “Everything that happens here, I direct,” he observes. “All the processes come through my intent, so technically these guys are all extensions of my hands.”
Still, his capable assistants are all paid, and, according to the boss, they often make insightful, helpful suggestions. “It takes a village to make this kind of stuff,” Aeling says.
A master sculptor who’s called St. Pete home since 2005, Aeling is president of the Warehouse Arts District Association, which oversees the 55,000-square-foot former Soft Water Laundry compound. He was a driving force behind the ArtsXChange, the on-site gallery and studio facility, and is one of the key players behind Phase II, which will add an educational center, performance space and additional studio space in 2019.
These were more than enough reasons for the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance to name Aeling the Visual Artist recipient at its upcoming 2019 MUSE Awards, a “to pay tribute to those that continue to inspire and guide St. Petersburg to its standing as an international arts destination.”
Aeling and five others – to be announced shortly – will be honored at a ceremony Feb. 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts.
He was one of five artists, chosen through an International Public Art Call, to submit proposals for the police station courtyard and lobby. He was awarded the commission from the City’s Percentage For Art ordinance in 2017.
Aeling chose stainless steel as his media for the courtyard sculpture, Gladiolus Blossom. At the moment, it’s in many sections in those crowded rooms at MGA, with Aeling’s assistants cutting, shaping and welding metal to his exact specifications; the completed piece will stand 20 feet tall and weigh five tons.
Gladiolus Blossom, like much of Aeling’s work in different media, combines organics and mechanics.
“The gladiolus flower shares its name, from the Latin root word, with gladiator,” he explains. “Because it’s sword-shaped. They are about strength of character, integrity … core values that the police department shares. That seemed to make sense to me.”
The outer skin of the sculpture is see-through, not solid. “At the center of every flower is its essence, the pistil and the stamen that carry the information that brings the species forward,” Aeling continues. “So in this flower blossom, we have a polished gold sphere, and that represents community. So when you look at it, you see yourself reflected in it.
“The flowering outside is protective, and nurturing, and it reveals the community to the greater world. And that, in an idealized sense, is what the police department represents – it protects and nurtures the core values of society, so that culture can flourish.”
The symbolism continues with its companion piece, for the police department lobby. Shielded will be a 30-foot eagle wing made of oxidized aluminum, each feather (the longest one measure 18 feet) designed and crafted to specs designed by nature itself.
The symbolism of the protective eagle wing , in a police station, should be obvious to anyone.
Commissions, the artist says, ultimately help to fund his more “freely creative” endeavors. “From a creative perspective, there’s the things that I want to do. And then when something is commissioned like this, those funds are tied to the intent of whoever’s footing the bill. So it’s necessary to marry your creative interests with their goals; there becomes a collaborative process.
“It isn’t total creative freedom, but oftentimes the most creative results come from restricted variables. When you’re limited in what you can do, you tend to find more interesting ways of getting where you want to go.”
Aeling is proud to be a the custodian of the steel beam recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, destined to be the centerpiece of Rise St. Pete, a monument to be dedicated next September at the entrance to the Warehouse Arts District.
The 1 ½-inch thick steel, scarred and bent, with bits of concrete attached, was acquired by the veterans who own St. Pete-based American Freedom Distillery. Together, they and Aeling – and the City – broke ground on Rise St. Pete last month.
Aeling’s design for the monument includes another bird’s wing – this one, the mythical phoenix, rising from behind the beam, out of the flame of destruction, and signifying America’s new beginning.
The Warehouse Arts District itself will get a new lease on life in the coming months, thanks to an anonymous private donation of $500,000. Along with the Arts Xchange extension, several of the unsightly – and unused – warehouse spaces near 22nd Street S. will be removed. Also planned: A new parking lot, state-of-the-art lighting and other cosmetic necessaries.
“There are gardening metaphors that are very appropriate – this notion of when you plant something, it sleeps, and then it creeps, and then it leaps,” Aeling says. “And 2019 will be a leap for the entire district.”