Taking up the entire 147-foot width of a newly constructed building in Coconut Grove, a large figure seems to float as if it is a reflection of the sky. It is a work of art, in fact, imagined and realized by Coconut Grove resident and Danish-born artist Mette Tommerup.
The mural – made up of 376 engraved aluminum plates with Kynar metal coating – is 36 feet high. Tommerup says it is, by far and wide, the biggest work she has created in her three-decade career. Entitled “Sky of the First Water,” it took 18 months to complete with its final installation date on Nov. 9, 2022.
“Sky of the First Water,” at first glance, looks like an island formation but then the coloration is that of water close to the coast. In these shallow waters, one can easily see the ripples of the seabed but also the silhouette of a swimming female figure appears.
“I like to think of her as Yemaya, considered the Ocean Mother Goddess in Afro Caribbean religion. In this case, Yemaya watches over as the protector of women and families, which connect to the CAHSD (Community Action and Human Service Department) that helps so many in our community,” says the artist.
The project was a commission from Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places, a program of the county’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Tommerup was awarded after being short-listed from an open call for artists to create a work for a new mixed-use project on the corner of Douglas Road and U.S. 1 in Miami’s West Grove neighborhood.
The building, Platform 3750, is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Miami-Dade County, Miami, and the Cornerstone Group, a Hollywood-based developer. It will also house the social services department, CAHSD.
Amanda Sanfilippo Long, curator and artist manager for Art in Public Places (APP) explains how artists’ work, such as Tommerup’s, becomes part of new construction like Platform 3750.
“When there is new construction on land that is owned by Miami-Dade County or land owned by any municipality within Miami-Dade County, it triggers the ordinance that requires that 1.5 percent of the cost of new construction or publicly owned land goes towards the commissioning or acquisitioning of art,” she says.
The selection process is rigorous with multiple stages of a proposal, site visits, draft reviews, and then a formal presentation to a governing board, according to Sanfilippo Long.
Tommerup said she had previously applied for various Art in Public Places commissions and finally, not only ended up with the one of her dreams – the mural for Platform 3750, but in an unusual twist, was shortlisted and then selected for a second APP.
Carnival Corporation and the county entered into an agreement to renovate Cruise Terminal F at PortMiami, which again triggered the aforementioned ordinance in which public art would be part of the restoration.
Tommerup's second Art in Public Places project is called “Ocean Contour,” a 180-foot-wide acrylic paint-on-canvas mural made up of 12 paintings that cover the expanse of a long wall.
“This project was much harder and much more labor intensive than expected. Even assembling the massive stretchers was a big undertaking but creating the actual work turned out to be difficult on this scale. The paintings were each 14’ X 8’5” and they were heavy since they are double stretched with a second layer for durability in a public space.”
When it came time to bring the large works to the Port, she was in for a surprise, she says. If they were just another inch taller, they would not have fit through the access door. While she had measured the doors for access before she created the paintings, she said the original access doors were closed off and new ones created in their place. However, these kinds of small setbacks were all part of the learning process, she admits.
“Both projects were dream projects. I got to try out my ideas on a very large scale and it is my work – and seeing my work on that scale is very rewarding for myself,” she says, adding “and I hope it is inspiring and stimulating for people who see it.” In another interesting twist and not planned, the installation dates of both humongous projects ended up overlapping.
“The port was ready and they said, ‘Come on over, we are ready for you to install.’ And the same week, all the lifts were in place in front of the building at Platform.”
In both cases, there is much that goes into getting a public art piece to its completion. And unlike hanging a painting in a gallery or museum, since it is dealing with a county entity and a public-private partnership there are layers upon layers that go beyond the artwork itself.
“There are things that may change. In the case of Platform, for instance, the building had to be constructed. I would drive by the building since it was in my neighborhood and I would notice things. As the building is being constructed from the ground up, things shift on the spot and you must then update what you are doing,” says Tommerup.
A way for her to be able to create such massive works and to have full control over her own projects was finding the studio in Hialeah, especially in Miami where artists’ workspace is at a premium and extremely limited.
“I had a lot of angels who helped me. I had mentioned to a dear friend that I needed a studio and she said, ‘Well, let me see.’ She’s a problem solver and there it was – a place with a fabrication shop with all the facilities and a forklift!”
Working in metal was a shift for Tommerup as she had mostly worked with paint and canvas. During her career, she helped with other projects done in metal but never wholly one of her own.
“I wanted my work to look handmade,” so each plate has an original hand drawing with the fabrication done in her studio in Hialeah. “I didn’t want it to look digitized so I figured out if I did my own drawing directly on the plates and then had my team carve out and engrave those shapes, I would get that hand-drawn, engraved feel.”
This was all done on 7,000 pounds of metal. She and her team engraved, carried and lifted each piece of the gigantic mural for months.
While the work was labor intensive and artistically challenging, she says it was life-changing both personally and in her art practice. “You learn so much. It’s a lot of jumping through hoops. There’s no shortage of stress with any of these projects. You must be prepared to expect the unexpected. By the time you are done, you have become your own engineer.”
That’s precisely the mindset of Art in Public Places, says Sanfilippo Long. “We take a lot of pride in working with artists for their first public art commissions, working with an artist to expand their practice and trying something for the first time. So, it is a really great way for artists to do their first public art project because it can be quite intimidating.”
And for the Danish artist, these two projects were the largest and most expansive she's ever attempted, and is already contemplating the next endeavor.
"This has helped me in my own work and I think now the logistics might be easier from all I have gained," says Tommerup. "I want to do a larger exterior – something that spills onto the ground and onto a building and onto other environments; almost like a giant brushstroke that would connect all of the dimensions together."
Sanfilippo Long says she’s not surprised that the artist is thinking in even bigger terms given what she's just completed: “We specialize in what I like to call Super Projects, which is making artwork larger in scale and ambition than an artist has ever dreamt of making in their career.”
It was Tommerup's exhibition at Locust Projects, "Made By Dusk, (2020)" one of the only art exhibitions that was up for Miami Art Week during the pandemic that was one of the catalysts for her two latest and large commissions.
“Inside that space, it was all about scale,” she says. “All around the gallery, there were massive canvases that were unstretched and two back walls that had these 36" X 36" modular paintings and two front walls with 24" X 24" paintings.
"With Locust Projects’ Lorie Mertes's support, I was given a huge studio right next door to the show itself and that was the key for me to really crack the code. And then being able to have that solo installation in Locust Projects was a gift . . . the generosity of its financial support and freedom to create.”
Now Tommerup says she has the opportunity to give back to Locust Projects. She’s serving a two-year term on their board as artist representative. “I have been on the receiving end of building my dream projects and it is not to be underestimated. I want to be a part of helping other artists, too. I am in a position after the experience with Art in Public Places as well to help other artists navigate the territory, which can be tricky.”
During Art Basel Miami Beach, Tommerup’s “Ocean Contour” at PortMiami along with other public art commissions in Terminal F will be part of an official VIP event tour for visitors to Art Basel on Dec. 6. The public is invited to view the works during Art Miami Week, too.
“We like to feature new commissions each year and Art Basel invites us each year to present through their official event program,” says Sanfilippo Long.
Tommerup recalls growing up in Copenhagen, Denmark, and how she responded to the public art in her environs. “There were these breathing space moments where you came across these art pieces that just existed and it intrigued me and made me curious.” She says that as a girl she remembers thinking to herself, “One day, if at all possible, I would like to be someone who provides these moments.”
And those moments have arrived at a new building not far from her own backyard in Coconut Grove and in a cruise terminal under white peaked tents visible from MacArthur Causeway at PortMiami.
“Ultimately, I hope the viewer gets an unexpected escape from both of my pieces. I am a huge fan of Art in Public Places and especially how it makes art accessible to all, especially to the young audience. I like for the viewer to pause and get lost and maybe even wonder for a moment how or why this work exists?” she says.