Public mastodons combine art, history, science and fun

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– PHOTOS COURTESY OF UNITED WAY OF THE LAKESHORE

By Cynthia Price

Looked at one way, it all began when a generous donor, Patrick O’Leary, contacted recently-retired Muskegon Museum of Art Director Judy Hayner, and asked her what she was doing these days.

O’Leary, an officer in SPX Corporation which started in Muskegon and a former resident here, had the idea of increasing the amount of public art in Muskegon and asked Hayner if she would be willing to spearhead it. MuskegonCity Public Art Initiative was born, and its first project was unveiled last week.

“The reason for his philanthropy always tickles me: it’s just that he really loves Muskegon,” Hayner said. “It’s O’Leary’s way of creating more substantive permanent installations on the stature of the Richard Hunt [Muskegon, Together Rising].”

But looked at another way, it began perhaps as long as 20 million years ago (give or take a million), but certainly not less than 10,000-14,000 years ago when mastodons still roamed North and Central America.

Where the two time frames converge is in front of the Lakeshore Museum Center at the corner of Clay and Fourth in downtown Muskegon, as Moxie the Mastodon emerges out of the ground.

Though the sculpture, by Australia’s internationally-renowned husband and wife sculptors Gillie and Marc, is massive in keeping with the real American mastodons (who weighed somewhere in the 6-to-11-ton range), there are also now lots of tiny mastodons in Muskegon.

Gillie and Marc also created 20 minis which are “hidden” all over downtown, and which all have names starting with “M” as well, from Matteus to Marcus  to Meghan to Moe.

Inside the Lakeshore Museum Center (LMC), people can find a brochure which lists clues to all of the mini-mastodon locations, along with further historical information about their “habitats” and a helpful illustration of the surroundings.

Says LMC Executive Director Annoesjka Soler, “People  love the playfulness and ability to interact with the sculpture. The scavenger hunt for the minis has been huge. The CVB [Convention and Visitors Bureau] and Chamber [of Commerce] are thrilled with seeing so many families walking and on bikes looking for all 20.”

Those who show the staff at the LMC the results of their mini-mastodon search will receive a small prize.

And there are yet more.

The LMC’s ambitious Coming to the Lakes exhibit, started in 2000 and augmented in 2004, features a replica of a mastodon, complete with long fur, in its opening display.

The related display, Michigan Through the Depths of Time, includes real mastodon bones discovered in nearby Rothbury years ago and eventually donated to the LMC.

According to Hayner, part of her task with the MuskegonCity Public Art Initiative is to discuss potential sites and subject matter with stakeholders. Shortly after she met with the LMC last summer, a staff person received an email from Gillie and Marc saying that they focused on “megafauna,” the general category for the massive land animals typical of the last ice age. Everyone agreed that a mastodon sculpture would be a great first piece. A request for proposals to create it was spread widely, but Gillie and Marc eventually won the bid.

The sculpture also serves a secondary purpose (among others), that of increasing interest in the museum itself. “Moxie was developed to intrigue people to see the fossils and replica inside. It is working perfectly. Once they come in they also see our new STEM center and they stay for hours to play,” said Soler.

Mastodon fossils are designated as Michigan’s official state fossil, thanks to the efforts of students at a middle school in Ann Arbor in 2002. Saline, near Ann Arbor, is also the discovery site of the longest and most intact trail of mastodon footprints. (It should be noted that at the newly-redone National History Museum in Ann Arbor, visitors can see a male and a female mastodon skeleton, both excavated by University of Michigan staff within hours of Ann Arbor, along with a cast of the Saline mastodon trackway that they can step into.)

Mastodons seem most like woolly mammoths in appearance, but actually mammoths and the modern elephant are both equally distant relatives. All are huge, and the replica at LMC is modeled on ones that were 7-9 feet tall, weighed six tons, and had tusks that could be as long as 16 feet.

“Art can be very serious. We thought it was fun to switch gears and do something that could be very whimsical, but still related to our story here in Muskegon,” said Hayner.

Though the number of public art pieces in Muskegon, and the broadness of their range, are amazing  – there are 45, running the gamut from the hyper-real murals about Muskegon’s historical past on downtown buildings to relocated award winning sculptures by Lee Collet at the County structures on Apple – the MuskegonCity Public Art Initiative wants to add more, according to Hayner.

Hosted by  the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in collaboration with the Downtown Arts Committee, the initiative has already begun its second project, which will be at Heritage Landing.

Hayner comments, “Connecting art to local history is a guiding theme for Patrick O’Leary, and that just adds to all that’s going on here.
“Muskegon is way past the tipping point in being a really wonderful place to live and visit,” she adds.