Something is glowing at Market Square Park, and it's worth the trip to find out why. The Houston Downtown Management District has installed a new permanent public artwork in the historic park. Meander, a series of raised cast-concrete troughs filled with glossy pigmented resin, mimics Buffalo Bayou’s physical form and route, giving park visitors a new view of the familiar body of water. The site-specific sculpture, which is part seating area, part playful artwork, was conceived and created by Falon Mihalic, founder of Falon Land Studio. Meander is now permanently on view.
Situated between the dog run and the events lawn, Meander’s concrete forms are set at varying heights for sitting, interaction and exploration. Adult visitors will be able to enjoy park programming or watch children from the bench-height pieces that face the lawn, while kids can explore the smaller-scale works. The surfacing around the piece features a concentric pattern that invites further discovery. At night, the serpentine structures are lit from the interior to create an alluring glow.
People familiar with the park will remember this spot because it's where another iconic art piece used to reside: Buster, the friendly neighborhood dog made from a log.
"We had Buster installed in the park back in 2010. It was a large dog carved out of a tree that came down during Hurricane Ike. He was sourced from Galveston. We always knew Buster had a shelf life, but we kept him as long as we could," said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing and communications and retail development for Downtown District.
Buster might be enjoying his retirement after safeguarding the park for 10 years, but that situation only cleared up more space for the park to install something new in Buster's old post.
"We wanted something with a play component. It’s a small neighborhood park, and we do have kids and families who come through. We knew we didn’t have the space for a large play area like you might find at other parks," Bertinot commented.
T'was quite the conundrum, but that's where Mihalic enters the story.
Mihalic received a degree in Natural Sciences from New College of Florida and a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. She moved to Houston and founded her company in 2013, bringing expertise in visual art, environmental science and urban design to create landscapes where people can experience a sense of wonder and connection with the environment. Working across painting, sculpture, interactive public art and landscape design, she uses color, light and space to investigate the human connection to natural systems. Her public art installations have been exhibited throughout the United States and Canada.
Mihalic's idea, Meander, was perfectly positioned to fill what Buster had left behind, and Mihalic brought just the right background for Downtown District's desires.
"We were drawn to her because she’s a landscape architect with a focus on environment and sustainability. We liked that combination of artist-meets-landscape architect, and we really liked the idea of doing something that we consider functional art," Bertinot added. "Because Market Square Park is a small space, Meander could be utilized for seating, whether it’s reading a book or the paper, or sitting to watch a movie or concert at the park. At the same time, it has a whimsical sense to it. Kids can climb, jump and walk along it. It’s like a curvy balance beam. It was a great blend, and Falon was a great fit for us."
With the creative idea given the green light, Mihalic and a team of workers started the job of creating the piece that gave a nod to Houston's most famous waterway.
"I wanted to reference the historical context of the founding of Houston by referencing the bayous. I wanted to do it in a more expressive and abstract way as opposed to a direct representation. That’s why it has a meandering and curvy feel, like the bayous do, without being a scaled map or direct representation of Buffalo Bayou," Mihalic said.
Coming up with the design was one task, but creating it in place was a whole other duty.
"It was an enormous amount of work, inspiration and coordination among so many different contractors. It’s amazing how many different hands touched the project to bring it from idea to fruition. It’s a multiple month project, and all the elements are custom. The concrete sculptures were cast from my design drawings, and they have a really exquisite, velvety finish. It’s a trademarked mix the fabricator made for the concrete," Mihalic said.
Then, there's the resin used to fill those concrete pods.
"The resin is what I call the crown jewel. It’s an industrial resin that has only been used in public art in a couple instances to my knowledge," she said.
Just like the savvy downtown worker who knows how to give a day-to-night look with the change of a shirt or hairstyle, Meander, too, demonstrates that same versatility. During the day, it's impressive, but at night, it comes alive if almost by magic.
"Because of the way I did a special pigmentation process when casting the resin, the resin has layers of color movement that feel like water. It feels like you can see the water's movement, but it's frozen in time. All that pigmentation looks different in various light conditions. As the lights activate from inside Meander when the sun is setting, that’s my favorite time," Mihalic said.
During the installation, the public was able to witness the creation, from start to finish, which further instills the notion that Meander is meant to belong to everyone - not unlike Market Square Park.
Meander's permanent residence at the downtown park is an apropos celebration of the property's 10-year anniversary, although it might feel like the park has been around for much longer.
"The park has been around forever. There have been different iterations of the park since the 80s, but the 10-year anniversary is specific to when we redeveloped the park and reopened it," Bertinot said.
The park has served as a capstone to a larger push to support the commerce, residents and fun-seekers who patron the area, even in hard times.
During the economy's ebbs and flows from the 80s to current day, Houston's downtown area also experienced the same type of distress. There were amazing public spaces, buildings, offices and events taking place - but the 002 needed a boost to remind Houstonians of its greatness. Market Square Park was that lift, and it has spilled out into the streets of downtown, bringing art, business, residential capacity and lifelong memories with it.
Essentially, Market Square Park is the equivalent of "If you build it, they will come."
With that, Downtown District has always included public art - like Meander - in its longterm plans for the property. Much of the park’s art collection was featured in the park’s previous design coordinated by DiverseWorks in 1991, with the unified message of embracing our city’s history. Works by Richard Turner, Paul Hester, James Surls and Malou Flato are preserved or reconfigured in the current design. Recently commissioned artwork includes sculptures by Ketria Bastian Scott and Sharon Connally Ammann in Lauren’s Garden. And don't forget James Phillips’ aforementioned Buster.
The park helped bring business too. Five years after the park reopened, more than 25 new bars and restaurants have moved into the area, along with major residential properties. Yet through it all, Market Square Park is a destination that effortlessly holds both grand aspirations and an at-home coziness.
"Everything we do at the park has to fit the neighbors and the neighborhood. That’s how we make all the decisions, everything from programming and down the line. It’s a true neighborhood park. Whether you’re just walking your dog or grabbing coffee, it’s a wonderful respite for the neighbors. It‘s a place where they gather, and it’s their green space. We’ve worked hard to make it beautiful, clean, safe and a place where the ownership is for the neighbors," Bertinot said.
As of right now, Market Square Park is basking in Meander's glow - a fitting testament to Downtown District's job well done.
Visit Market Square Park at 301 Milam. For more information, visit marketsquarepark.com.
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