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Public Artist’s Retrospective in final week at MOCA GA

After 32 years creating public sculpture, Ayokunle Odeleye reflects on the responsibility of art in the public domain

By Rosalind Bentley

Ayokunle Odeleye saw the older woman watching him from across the street, but he kept working.

Years before, he had forged the towering monument “Spirit, Family and Community,” a gleaming bronze sculpture on a corner in the Peoplestown neighborhood. The piece was created as part of the public art program meant to spruce up pockets of Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics.

But it had been a while since the Olympics, and it had been a while since the bronze looked lustrous, so Odeleye (pronounced Oh-da-LAY-yay) was out polishing it.

“Hey, hey, take your hands off that,” Odeleye remembers the older woman yelling at him.

“I’m the artist, I did this,” Odeleye replied, and he pointed to his signature at the base of the piece for emphasis.

“Unhuh, yeah, I don’t care, that’s our art, so get your hands off it,” the woman said.

That’s when Odeleye knew that, tarnished or not, as a work of public art the piece was a success.

“When you do a piece of work that people find valuable and meaningful they protect it,” Odeleye said recently. “And when you’re a public artist you really are a contractor of community identity.”

An artist knows that once he creates a work of art specifically for the public domain — no matter how connected he might feel to the piece — once it’s placed in a community, in many ways it’s not really his anymore, signature or not. As one of the nation’s most prolific public artists, Ayokunle Odeleye is clear on that.

Today begins the final week of a show of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

The show “Ayokunle Odeleye: Thirty-Two Years of Public Art” is a retrospective. The sheer scale of most works of public art often prevents putting several pieces in a single dedicated space for a retrospective, outside of perhaps a major sculpture garden. So, many such retrospectives of the art form are done through drawings. This is the case with Odeleye’s show, but it is enlivened by lovely architectural models of nearly every piece in the retrospective, which spans his work from Alaska to Florida, with emphasis on Georgia.

The viewer walks through Odeleye’s career in miniature. There is a glowing bronze oar, meant to memorialize an 1898 massacre in Wilmington, N.C. While the model at MOCA GA is barely 4-feet tall, in Wilmington, where the actual monument stands, there are six such oars, each rising 16 feet. The tiny, sinuous, mahogany model of “Linear Figure” is in its own way as resonant as the 12-foot stainless steel sculpture it inspired, which now stands on the Clayton State University campus in Morrow.

Ironically, Odeleye, who is also an art professor at Kennesaw State University, has done very little gallery work in his career, instead focusing almost exclusively on creating commissioned pieces. Some see it as restrictive since that sort of work must please more viewers, and stakeholders, than the artist. But as a young art student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, during the height of the Black Power movement, it was drilled into Odeleye that an African-American artist had to carry the burden of representing the underserved. It was also expected that an African-American artist would represent his community visually and positively.

“Ayo came from that school that says art isn’t for art’s sake, it’s done for a reason that is political or social,” said Kevin Cole, a longtime colleague of Odeleye’s and fellow visual artist. “It’s not just about creating for the sake of it, it’s about changing things.”

Looking through the retrospective it’s clear that this principle has guided the projects he has bid for and won, from work for a juvenile detention center in Richmond to an abstract totem in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. But an artist’s personal passion is not enough for a piece of public art to work, as evidenced by the recent controversies surrounding the Living Walls Project murals and a painting removed from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after it prompted complaints from viewers. For a piece of public art to truly work it must have community buy-in.

Rather than finding that notion restrictive or repellent, Odeleye seems to thrive on it, going back to a neighborhood again and again to get input from residents and others.

“He goes into these community meetings, not as a fly on the wall but as a willing participant,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.” He has a keen and intent ear, and he goes the extra mile to ensure the community’s concerns and voices are infused in each piece.”

Which is what Odeleye did in designing the Peoplestown piece, even though his original vision of the work was something very different than what residents had in mind. But he listened to them. And now, years after its installation, there is a fondness for it on the part of the artist and community.

“You can’t have an elitist attitude,” Odeleye said. “When you come into the public domain, you have a greater responsibility.”


Event Preview

“Ayokunle Odeleye: Thirty-Two Years of Public Art”

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Today and Tuesday through Sat. Jan. 12; Free; Museum of Modern Art of Georgia, 75 Bennett St., Atlanta, or 404-367-8700;

At the show’s closing event on Jan. 12, Odeleye will be part of a panel discussion with noted sculptors including Maria Artemis and Curtis Patterson, about the responsibilities of the public artist. Discussion begins at 2 p.m. at MOCA GA. Free.


Original Article:

Ayokunle Odeleye / Responses to MOCA Interview Questions From Kate Fowler

1.) K.F.      What can you tell us about your retrospective at MOCA GA?

This retrospective exhibition, which includes three dimensional models, technical diagrams, drawings and photographs of sculpture commissioned by arts agencies for site specific public spaces across the United States, represents thirty two years of my work in the field of Public Art. 
The works in the exhibit offer a comprehensive look at a large body of commissioned sculpture and related imagery that have never been displayed together in a single environment.


2.) K.F.      On view at MOCA GA are models, drawings, and documentation of your public works. How would you suggest viewers to approach your work so that they can understand the scaled version of a project and also its position and influence in the public space?

The work in the gallery is arranged in chronological order providing the viewer with the opportunity to interact with my earliest work to the most recent. In reviewing the exhibition i would suggest viewers examine the drawings first, look at the models next, and finally, images of the monumental sculpture on site which evolved from the drawings and model studies.


3.) K.F.      You have been working in public art for 32 years. What changes have you seen through your career in public art? What challenges or advances do you see public art undertaking in the future?

One change that i have seen in Public Art has been in the area of presentation technology. Formally, artists selected as project finalist would come to the committee selection meeting with original project drawings and models in hand as part of their final competitive presentation. In most instances digital presentations have now replaced this process with models, drawings and related imagery existing as digitized images projected onto a screen.  Public Art as a whole has expanded to   include all areas of the visual and performing arts with an increasing focus on temporary projects and new technologies over permanent traditional works of art.


4. K.F.       What similarities or difference have you observed in your process and the public’s response in Georgia, compared to other regions for which you have created public art?

The majority of my publicly commissioned sculptures have been outside of the state of Georgia. The response to my work by both local and national audiences, however, has been the same in terms of appreciation for how the artist has addressed the site, admiration for the physical form and curiosity regarding the layers of meaning associated with the works content.


5.) K.F.      Can you talk a little about your creative process? Where do you find inspiration or what helps you generate ideas? What difficulties do you face when creating art that the viewer cannot perceive from looking at your work? What challenges do you face with the execution of your art that is different from other types of art?

Public Art commissioned by a state or federal agency requires the artist to address the site in the content of the work. Ideas associated with the works theme often result from research conducted by the artist related to the history and or special characteristic of the site and its local population.  Additionally the project selection committee and other stakeholders will often inform the artist about tangible and intangible goals they would like the artwork to achieve related to the site.

There are numerous challenges associated with the fabrication of large scale metal sculpture that are not apparent to the viewer of the installed work. Some of these are associated with constantly having to balance, move, turn and re-position metal forms weighing thousands of pounds to access areas being developed. Another challenge is in the natural tendency of metal of all types to expand and warp under the application of heat in the welding process. This is an obvious problem when the design requires a specific area of the sculpture to be straight as an arrow or when one surface plane of a form is designed to be in a particular proximity with another area. Warping of the form and the undesirable movement of structures exposed to intense heat can offer a significant challenge to the artist fabricator. The viewing public will have no clue of these studio challenges if the artist has successfully addressed the issue before the work leaves the studio for installation at the site.


 6.) K.F.      How has technology influenced your work and teaching in your career?

I have adjusted to advances in technology in both my studio practice and as a sculpture instructor at Kennesaw State University by acquiring training with advanced equipment and computer software. The very rapid changes in computer software, however, often require the assistance of my daughters who are highly proficient with computer related technology. KSU faculty and computer graphic majors have also been invaluable in my ability to cope with advances in computer software technology related to my studio practice particularly in the area of conducting presentations.


7.)  K.F.      You have been able to maintain a career as an artist even through tough economic times. What do you attribute to this success? What advice can you give to other artists who are seeking, but struggling to consistently earn from their art?

Artist who are seeking to earn money from their art need to be highly proficient at what they do. They should have established a studio space in which they maintain a consistent schedule of work, clearly determine the ideas being addressed in their art, identified their audience, establish marketing tools and a support group, keep informed of activities in their field, develop multiple income streams, seek feed back from professionals in their field, manage their finances responsibly, stay healthy and be persistent.


8.)  K.F.      Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like for us to keep an eye out for?

I recently completed a bronze and stainless steel sculpture for the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs. The sculpture is a working sundial and is part of an installation that honors citizens from the Atlanta, Cascade road community.

The work is located at the intersection of Cascade road and Benjamin E. Mays Drive. It is a significant work in my portfolio as my first attempt at a large scale sundial that required an extensive employment of science and math in the completion of this functional interactive sculpture. Viewers to the MOCA exhibition will see photographs of the installed work along with related models, structural drawings and diagrams illustrating the mathematical calculations used to determine the movement of the sun in relationship to the sculpture at this particular site. It is an extraordinary work that has received very positive responses from the Atlanta community.