On a recent drizzly morning, I rode out to the North Charleston Riverfront Park to get a sneak peek at the 2013 National Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition, which is in the final stages of installation along the scenic riverside walkway. Even though the sky was heavy with clouds and impending rain, the beauty of the park itself, set against the Cooper River in the backyard of the old Naval base, was breathtaking. Dolphins played nearby in the water and the U.S. Navy Memorial was quiet and somber. It’s a perfect backdrop for an outdoor, public art space.

Of course, finding the park was a bit of a challenge to a newcomer like myself. The streets leading to the park twist and turn through stately old houses, mostly past their prime, and I missed the entrance to the park. But once I was in and had found the Cooper River, the sculptures were impossible to miss. They’re all fairly large, and the walkway along the river was designed with art in mind. There are twists and turns along the gravel path, creating nooks in which to place these public art pieces.

They come in all shapes and sizes, it seems. A bright red tangle of metal, twisted together to create the symbols for male and female, merged into one. A large blue bunny, sweet and whimsical. A burst of yellow bubbles. A skeletal hand. Though the exhibit was still not quite complete and the pieces weren’t labeled, they were all there, ready for viewing weeks ahead of the May 1 opening.

The National Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition is in its eighth year, and this year a total of 47 submissions were received from 22 artists in nine different states. Of those, only 10 were selected for display, although a late withdrawal brought that number down to nine. Sculptures came from North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and as far away as Texas.

According to AnneTrabue Nelson, the Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator for the City of North Charleston, although this year the installation went rather smoothly for a change, the process of getting the sculptures to the park is always a challenge. Jeff Brewer, a sculptor from Texas, delivered his work, “Bunny,” himself. He and his wife left Texas on a Thursday morning and drove straight through to North Charleston. After Bunny was safely installed on its pad, they stopped, ate lunch, and headed South for a gallery opening.

It’s standard practice to use a front loader and an occasional boom truck when placing sculptures throughout the park. But even though they always measure beforehand, Nelson says, “until you actually place a sculpture on the pad and see where the bolts are, you don’t really know.” This year, they had to add an additional pad beneath Adam Walls’ sculpture, “Life,” after it was already installed. After the installation, Walls, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, walked down the train tracks adjacent to the park, seeking new pieces of scrap metal to add to his supplies for future pieces.

Pennsylvania sculptor John W. Parker’s bright orange “Daddy Longlegs,” a huge but still delicate metal piece, required a crane and lots of manpower to wiggle it all into place. Now the spidery piece stands watch at the edge of the river.

The artists featured in this year’s sculpture exhibit are part of a small but vibrant community made up of sculptors who spend their time participating in year-long shows like this one. They run into each other often, so the grouping of artists is a tight-knit one. And since, as Nelson says, “No matter what city you live in, springtime in the arts is always busy,” these types of shows pop up all over the country, requiring road trips and red eyes for everyone.

This year’s selections were made by juror Janet Kagan of the Public Art Collaborative, an organization dedicated to assisting communities in the creation and sustaining of public art programs and spaces, much like the Sculpture Exhibition in North Charleston. Nelson met Kagan at a conference, and after Kagan offered some sound advice, she was invited to adjudicate the exhibition this year. Prior jurors have included curators for prominent galleries as well as faculty members from such prestigious schools as Emory University.

In her selection process, Kagan sought quality and beauty over cohesion, in a way. “I did not strive to curate the works in this exhibition around a literal ‘theme,'” she says. She “instead chose works that offer a range for public engagement and receptivity. I hope that residents and visitors will carefully consider their perceptions and expand their individual experiences to now include how these artists see and interpret.”

Bringing art to the public, allowing them to see and touch and feel it, was a sentiment echoed by Nelson. When asked what she looks for in the exhibit pieces, she said, “I like sculptures to engage the viewer. They stop and feel the sculpture, walk around it, and then inspect it to try and figure out how it is made.” And you can see this aesthetic on display at the exhibit. Each piece is unique and colorful, beautiful and tactile.

Submissions to the event are on the rise each year. With cash prizes totaling over $14,000, there’s money to be made and audiences to be reached as the sculptures remain on display for almost a full year. Prize winners will be announced at the North Charleston Arts Festival Artist Reception on Friday, May 3.

Regardless of who wins or loses, the exhibition will be well worth a visit. There are no fees to enter the park, and with the short walk through the trails, all the sculptures are easily seen in one trip.

The National Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition is on view now through May 2014 at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. Find out more at northcharleston.org.

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