The Obelisk Art 450 (OA450) public art project has broken out of the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum and found haven on 25 sites around St. Augustine. But what is it? Why public art? And who is sponsoring this project? OA450 is Compassionate St. Augustine’s (CSA) multi-faceted commemoration of the 450th anniversary of the nation’s oldest city. Twenty-five 8-foot tall replicas of the 1812 Spanish Constitution Obelisk on the city’s plaza were given to renowned regional, national, and international artists to “interpret” the four foundational values of the 1812 constitution – Freedom, Democracy, Human Rights, and Compassion. After a two-week exhibit at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, they have been placed on the historic and compassion themed sites citywide in preparation for a “Tour of Compassion” that will run from October 2 – January 31, 2016. Each site represents either a significant act of compassion in St. Augustine’s 450- year history or a time and place where a lack of compassion and respect for the Golden Rule has created dark chapters waiting to be revisited anew in a truth-filled and transformative light.
Since its inception in 2011 as a grassroots organization, Compassionate St. Augustine has been committed to inspiring, growing and influencing a culture of compassion locally and beyond through advocacy, awareness and action. In 2013, as CSA pondered how it might contribute to the commemoration of the 450th, one of its members was contacted by Paul-Gordon Chandler, a colleague and founder of CARAVAN, a peace-building visual arts non-profit dedicated to building interfaith bridges. CARAVAN’s highly acclaimed public art project “In Peace and Compassion” was exhibited in Cairo, Egypt and London, England that year. Ongoing conversations with Chandler about that project and earlier ones that focused on peace and compassion inspired CSA to consider the possibility and the challenge of creating St. Augustine’s first citywide public art project. Shortly thereafter, the seed of that idea began to take root when CSA members met the curator of the CARAVAN exhibit and explored the feasibility of such a project.
As CSA’s advisory board members contemplated whether to use lions, manatees, or some other cultural symbol for such a project, the creative imagination of one member led them to the decision to use replicas of the iconic obelisk with an emphasis on its four values. Not long after, the idea and project received a unanimous thumbs up. However, there were many twists and turns, dead-ends and detours from the seminal idea of to the reality of the enormity of the project.
It did not take long for CSA to realize that the Obelisk Art 450 public art project might cost as much as $500,000. However, doubts about whether or not the money could be raised locally were soon assuaged when the Dr. JoAnn Crisp-Ellert Fund of the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida awarded the project a $30,000 grant in the summer of 2014. Not long after, the all-volunteer leadership of CSA began a fundraising campaign and late that fall contracted with Cabeth Cornelius to curate the OA450. (Cornelius had previously served as the public art administrator at Jacksonville International Airport.) Simultaneously, Bill Goode, a local boat-builder specializing in fiberglass fabrication and a custom cabinet maker also constructed the replica obelisks. A “call-for-artists” went out early in 2015 to professional artists across the country and internationally. By early March 2015, a three judge professional public arts panel (Jacksonville, Miami, Charlotte) chose the finalists and the project was underway.
Then there were the spin-offs. Art classes and after school programs in twenty-seven public, charter and private elementary schools in St. John’s County were given 4-foot replica obelisks, along with a compassion based curriculum for an Obelisk Art 450 initiative titled “Compassion Through the Eyes of Children.” The young artists studied and discussed the curriculum and then interpreted the four values onto their obelisks. To date, these obelisks have been collectively exhibited twice. First at a celebration for the students, teachers, principals and administrators last May and in September along with the large obelisks at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum. One of the highlights of “Compassion Through the Eyes of Children” was the City of St. Augustine’s decision to make the Wards Creek Elementary School obelisk their official gift to King Felipe VI and Queen Letezia of Spain during their recent visit.
When St. Augustine’s sister city of Aviles, Spain learned of the OA450, their City Commission and the Compassionate St. Augustine board of directors formally agreed to create an international bridge of compassion and solidarity by having an OA450 public art project of their own. The unique international art exhibit included an artist exchange that sent St. Augustine OA450 artist Jan Tomlinson Master to Aviles to participate in their program last April. In July, Pablo Hugo Rozada Vena of Aviles spent two weeks here painting the OA450 obelisk that is now in the Menorcan Pocket Park on Hypolita and Spanish Streets.
Of course none of this could have happened without the generous financial and in-kind support of the The Community Foundation, CSA’s Title Sponsor, and over two dozen other major sponsors as well as smaller gifts from individuals county-wide and beyond. Compassionate St. Augustine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and it is still seeking donations for the OA450 project and its initiatives. “Compassion Through the Eyes of Children” is now in the planning stage.
The twenty-five obelisks will be on the streets of St. Augustine through the end of January, 2016 and tour maps and other information will be available citywide starting October 2. A Culture Now smartphone and tablet app that details the project and locates the sites is available online for $2.99.
For more information about the OA 450 project, artists and the October 17, 2015 auction of eight un-sponsored obelisks at the Junior Service League’s Masquerade at the Alcazar Gala go to: Compassion St. Augustine OA450.
Caren Goldman, executive director and cofounder
Ted Voorhees, Compassionate St. Augustine board member and cofounder