Scottish artist Rob Mulholland, known for his creations depicting the interplay between humans and nature, has displayed his environmental sculptures around the world—Russia, France, South Korea—and now, in Portsmouth.
Mulholland had been invited to install projects in the U.S. before and hadn’t accepted. But when asked to take on a creation with the Elizabeth River Project, this time he said yes. “After learning about the work ERP had undertaken with the Elizabeth River, I realized that this was the type of organization that I could work well with on a new project,” he says.
What was once considered a polluted wasteland and environmental concern, Portsmouth’s Paradise Creek and its wetlands have been renewed into an alluring haven for nature and wildlife. The 40-acre Paradise Creek Nature Park opened downriver from the nearby Norfolk Naval Shipyard in December of 2012 through the labors of the Elizabeth River Project. “I really connected with the fact that this was reclaimed industrial land located in a predominately urban location,” he explains. “It's such an amazing tributary. I'm drawn to the sharp contrast between the shipbuilding yards silhouetting the skyline, juxtaposed against the delicate balance of nature. This adds tension; it's an interesting area to be explored artistically—a complete contrast between two worlds and yet at the same time, connected.”
The permanent installation, titled One Flock, features more than 100 sculptures of great blue herons and humans, created from mirrored steel that the artist and his wife, Susan, constructed at Metal Concepts Inc. in Norfolk and East Coast Steel Fabrications in Chesapeake. “It must have been pretty strange for the shipbuilding guys watching Susan and I slowly transform the individual shapes into a large sculpture,” Mulholland reflects. “After the first day or so, they started to come over for a look—I think partly to check the standard of our welding!”
Mulholland’s vision for One Flock is to spark conversation and promote awareness to the environmental threats of pollution, climate change and sea level rise, which affects the Chesapeake Bay, Elizabeth River and its tributaries and wildlife. “I wanted to address these concerns with my sculpture installations, encourage dialogue and focus attention to these issues affecting our habitat,” he says.
Looking inwardly into the mirrored reflection of the sculpted human silhouettes, the work encourages the viewer to think about their own relationship with the environment. “It was important to have mirrored figures represented; they symbolize our connection, our ethnic heritage, creeds and commonality with all,” he says. “I hope One Flock reflects the ideology that we are all one and captures the symbiotic relationship we have with nature. The human figures represent the community; they are in commune with the flock, like sentinels guarding over the wilderness.”
The sculptures bring out both questions and emotional responses in the viewer, about our place and role as human beings in the world, but also as members positioned in the flock. “It’s the ultimate realization that nature will always survive,” Mulholland expresses. “The question is, will we, if in the present and the future, we take the short-term gain and don’t learn to harness the environment in a sustainable way.”
Paradise Creek Nature Park is located at 1141 Victory Blvd., Portsmouth. Learn more about the Elizabeth River Project by calling 757-399-7487 or visiting ElizabethRiver.org.