From the ocean’s floor to university campuses, the artwork of Ross Power shows up in a wide spectrum of locations; and from marine ecology to the welfare of veterans, it addresses a wide spectrum of themes. Now, Power is pioneering the Vero Beach Art Village, a project designed to mold the cultural life of the community—and to make sure that Vero Beach is known for artistic flair.
Perhaps the best place to begin an exploration of Power’s work is the most extraordinary—the ocean floor. One of his latest works, Focus, is destined to rest upon the seabed 3 miles off the coast of Miami Beach. Power is well aware that the bottom of the sea is an unexpected place for a sculpture. That is part of the appeal, and part of his plan, for several reasons. For one thing, he describes himself as a “message-oriented artist,” and one of his key messages is the importance of marine conservation. “The ocean is our largest ecosystem,” he notes.
Focus is a stainless steel sculpture 8 feet high and 14 feet in diameter. When Power constructed it on land, its geometric design appeared futuristic, purposely reminiscent of a starship out of science fiction. However, once it is submerged, an event expected to take place in a year or so, its appearance will begin to change. As the stainless steel acquires a unique patina from its immersion in salt water, and barnacles grow upon its surface, the work of art will undergo a literal sea change. Its geometric form will remain, yet its appearance will metamorphose from that of a starship to that of a starfish.
Focus will not be Power’s first underwater artwork. In the mid-1980s, his sculptures No Turning Back and Future Wave were submerged off the coast of Florida. Like Focus, they carried a message of marine conservation. Unlike Focus, which is intended to be permanent, No Turning Back and Future Wave each spent just one year in the ocean. Both are now on exhibit at Florida International University.
The unconventional nature of such projects helps generate public interest, thereby giving Power’s environmental message a wider echo.
Furthermore, Power is fascinated by the ancient Greek myth of Atlantis. This goes hand in hand with his interest in conservation, as he sees Atlantis as “a metaphor for our society.” Since Atlantis is often portrayed as a highly advanced civilization that collapsed and disappeared, Power reads it as a fable for modern times, as the technological advancement of humanity goes hand in hand with the imperiled state of planetary ecosystems. For him, placing a sculpture at the bottom of the ocean is an intriguing reference to the Atlantis story.
And then there are the aesthetic aspects. Power is an avid diver as well as an artist, and he became interested in what a sculpture would look like if it were submerged and left underwater for a period of time. He reasoned that if he left it there for a year, he might return and find it looking as if it had aged a thousand years. Stainless steel would acquire a special kind of patina from immersion in salt water—an effect Power calls “Atlantean patina.” However, the idea evolved from there, and he became intrigued by the idea of leaving a sculpture on the ocean floor permanently.
For Focus, he worked with Lee Harris, a professor of ocean engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology, to meet the needed engineering specifications. This pairing added another facet to the meaning of the work, since it could now be seen as representing the potential cooperation of science and art in promoting conservation.
At first glance, it might seem contradictory to place a large man-made object at the bottom of the ocean in order to promote conservation. The artifact is not part of nature, after all. Or is it? Pondering these questions, Power designed his sculpture to serve as a habitat for marine creatures. “There are many little, colorful tropical fish that will live in the legs of the sculpture,” including the neon goby, distinguished by its electric blue stripe. “Larger fish will live in the cave part of the sculpture.” Is this a work of art or a habitat? The point is for it to be both. “The work of art becomes a living ecosystem.” It is a thought-provoking idea, and one that harmonizes with Power’s interest in the ocean environment.
More familiar to Vero Beach residents is Power’s Words From War, which stands in Riverside Park. Commissioned by Next Generation Veterans, the sculpture is dedicated to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Like his other works, it utilizes a geometric design; however, this piece is also “word art.” The words that appear on the surface of the sculpture are integral to its design and meaning: “Valor,” “Hope,” “Combat,” “Duty,” “Pain,” “Survive,” “Defense,” and “Honor.” All are words that struck and inspired Power as he conversed with U.S. combat veterans while designing the sculpture. The words that were finally chosen convey not only concepts but emotions; they are meant to evoke the human stories that exist behind every war memorial.
Furthermore, the surface of the sculpture is marked with bullet holes, intensifying the memorial’s sense of immediacy. And there is more to these bullet holes than meets the untrained eye. Power carefully selected the type of bullets that the veterans of these modern wars would have used during their military training. Therefore, the bullet holes on the sculpture not only evoke the peril and sacrifice of war, but they give a visceral sense of proximity; complementing the prominent and powerful words, the tiny bullet holes suggest human stories and human experience.
It is a characteristic of Power’s work that clear, deliberate themes are combined with subtle details. He says that half of what he does is “subliminal,” adding with a touch of irony, “I try to figure it out as I go along—which is like life, anyway.”
Reflective Man, another monumental work by Power, is an 11-piece sculptural installation made from burnished stainless steel. Despite its size, it has traveled widely; now, however, it has been brought to Vero Beach. Reflective Man features stylized figures that suggest both human and avian forms. Made decades ago, it had been displayed at various locations in California before being moved across the country to Florida. Before coming to Vero Beach, it was exhibited in the Keys and in Miami. For the Miami display, it was so close to the ocean that it was washed by the waves, giving it something of the Atlantean patina that Power finds so intriguing: “The stainless steel now looks like bronze,” he says.
Aside from its aesthetic value, the nature-induced change to the artwork fits in beautifully with the sculptor’s interest in the ocean and the theme of marine conservation. Nevertheless, Reflective Man is now on somewhat higher ground. In January 2022, it was installed on the lawn of Power’s new home—in the midst of what is becoming the Vero Beach Art Village. Thus, a sculptural project from early in his career is becoming a part of his newest endeavor.
The Art Village is an area from Fourteenth Avenue to Twentieth Avenue and from Eighteenth Street to Twentieth Street. Historically known as the Edgewood neighborhood, it is being developed as an artistic community. That means studios, galleries, and community events, as well as cafés, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts. The leadership team for the project includes approximately 50 people. In particular, Power notes that he has worked for years with Barbara Hoffman, a longtime president of the Cultural Council of Indian River County, in order to bring the project to fruition.
Part of the aim of the Art Village is to play off Vero Beach’s existing First Friday Gallery Stroll. “I’m hoping that with the art walks, we will get people walking down to visit the neighborhood,” Power says. He reports that increasing numbers of artists are joining the Art Village by purchasing homes and studio spaces in the area. It is also his intention that collectors be residents of the village, as their presence in the community would undoubtedly be symbiotic.
And then there’s the lychee tree, which Power hopes will become a landmark. It is on the property that he has purchased in the neighborhood—property that also includes expansive lawns and a brick house that dates to 1925. The house, he notes, “has very interesting architectural details.” He was intrigued by the use of brick, which is unusual for Florida.
Inside, a hallway will become a “tiny gallery with small-scale works,” open by invitation; outside on the lawn, the monumental Reflective Man will stand, a work of art at the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale. The lychee tree, with its 60-foot canopy, will be a focal point for “a series of poetry readings, musical performances, and artists’ presentations.” This series will bear the memorable title “Under the Lychee Tree,” which evokes a tropical environment and a sense of the exotic, along with an appreciation for nature.
The Vero Beach Art Village will “bring the intimacy and the isolation of an artists’ colony into the mainstream,” Power says. It is intended to have all the traditional characteristics of an artists’ colony without actually being isolated. The team behind the Art Village aims to take the ambience and creative flair of an artists’ colony and make it part of Vero Beach. “I believe Vero has a lot of hidden creativity,” Power says, “and I want to bring it to the forefront.”
The Vero Beach Art Village is about collaboration and complementary talents. And, in a sense, it is even about designing a new habitat—a human habitat, this time. “For me, the concept of collaboration is the highest form of human interaction,” declares Power. That viewpoint is inherent to the idea of the Art Village. And it is reflected in Power’s own works of art—be they under the sea or on dry land.