Public art acts as an organic advertisement for a city, a unique calling card that firmly establishes a sense of place. A public art project launched by sculptor Michael W. Marras could become a visible local landmark, along with jump-starting a new movement of artwork that is brought directly to the people.
Marras, whose medium is welded scrap steel, proposes to build a public art piece on the side of the Hazel Tree Interiors building on West Market Street. The project will use his signature style of refurbished and found metal components, and his knack for intricate detail.
Marras has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help accomplish this vision: The Tree Project, a 25-foot scrap metal and recycled steel tree sculpture at West Market and North Walnut streets.
(Check out the Kickstarter page by clicking here. Scroll down to watch the Kickstarter video.)
“If people are visiting Akron and see this giant tree sculpture, that’s what they’re going to remember and what they’re going to tell people about,” says Marras.
The proposed sculpture will take about six months to build, and will start in the ground (like a real tree) and connect to the side of the Hazel Tree Interiors building. Not only is the location of the proposed sculpture ideal — just down the street from the Highland Square neighborhood on a heavily used road — Hazel Tree’s owners, Karen Starr and Jon Haidet, are highly involved in the community.
“Jon and I know from our experience with the mural on the other side of the building that people really love giant public art like this,” says Starr, who’s also a local author, musician and sustainability advocate. “They still tell us all the time how much they love the mural and how happy it makes them whenever they see it. If he can raise the money for it, Michael’s sculpture is going to be a wonderful thing for all those people who drive down Market Street every day.”
The tree concept has many different angles. For one, it’s part of the namesake of the business to which it will connect. Also, Akron’s signal tree, a mere couple of miles away from Hazel Tree Interiors, is a local historic icon: a 400-year-old tree believed to have helped people find their way to trails and possibly canal routes. A tree also represents hope, something the local arts and culture community could use to realize its full potential.
And its construction will be complex, something Marras has already planned, thanks in no small part to his father, a former city architect. “I really have to take into account shifting and moving of metals and materials,” Marras says, adding this project has required a high level of organization.
“What I have figured out is the hardware aspect of it and how it will be attached to the building, mainly for safety reasons,” he says. “I have the formula figured out.” The city of Akron is on board — he just needs to fulfill his Kickstarter campaign to cover the materials, time and labor. Welding steel is no easy physical task, either, and it’s not always safe.
Marras has created a conceptual rendering of what the finished piece will look like, but its final form will depend on the materials he procures.
He is certain of some of its elements: “The inner structure is going to be steel tubing, and the outside will be scrap steel.” He also says that, like a real tree, the base will be heavy, with the weight decreasing higher up in the sculpture.
The rust of the steel will add appropriate color, and he plans to intersperse stainless steel among the rust. He also plans to install real birdhouses into the piece, along with “metal critters.”
Based on Marras’ sheer talent alone, this public art project will have clear benefits for the city. Good public art could beget other good public art, and so on. And his Kickstarter backers get some incredible gifts, like some of his other sculptures.
Although he’s worked with a number of established artists, and other public installations, there’s really no second generation of public sculpture in the area, says Marras. And those established public art pieces are mainly in less visible areas where traffic isn’t as robust as it was upon their creation.
And if his body of work thus far is any indication, Marras’ Tree Project will include realism, detail and emotion.
At his studio in downtown Akron, Marras is surrounded by a stunning menagerie of steel beings, whose poses and, in some cases, expressions, make them more humanlike than their flesh-and-blood aspirations, despite their industrial parts.
“All of this stuff used to be something else,” he says, looking around the room. He points to one in particular. “In this guy alone, there are hundreds of stories. And one day this will be melted down and smashed back into the earth, and some other artist may have those parts.”
His work follows in the footsteps of other Akron found art sculptors — people like PR Miller and John Comunale. The industrial materials of these artists are relics of our Rust Belt skin that once identified this sense of place. And these same materials can now find new purpose as this local art movement picks up steam.
Marras’ work stands out from these comparisons, however, because he implements painstaking detail of human anatomy to give his sculptures an elegance that seems to contradict the form. Even the way the sculptures are posed give the viewer the sense that they could spring to life at any moment.
His characters are vivid, with their own identities and back stories.
“I used my skills with life drawing and anatomy to really pay attention to the poses they are in and give them emotion,” says Marras, whose characters are so developed, they’ve been written into a screenplay and cast in his lore.
A larger story is at play
Marras’ story is about more than one person and one artist: he’s an archetype for Akron’s creative culture, and by extension, its future. Many cities struggle for relevance, and work to keep younger people from leaving, and a thriving arts scene has been identified by studies, consultants others as a driver to making a city a better place to live. It’s why public art’s so important for Akron.
“I hear more often than not local musicians and artists say, ‘I’m leaving Akron,’” Marras says. “I know maybe a handful of full-time artists that are my age living in Akron. We have too much talent in Akron that leaves at a certain point, because there are no outlets for them.
“We need more money for public sculpture,” he adds. “Every time I go out of state to another city, there’s public sculpture everywhere.”
Starr, co-owner of Hazel Tree, agrees. “Large-scale public art has this amazing power to it,” she says. “It can lift people’s spirits. I really think that Michael’s goal of this project creating even more interest in public art in Akron is fantastic. We are such a colorful city in so many ways. I love that this project wants to encourage us to take more art and color outside, for all to enjoy.”
More public art and more public support of art could very well keep young people in Akron, at least for long enough so these residents may establish careers.
And Marras’ trajectory is unique: unlike many of his peers, who studied in Akron and left to pursue art careers in other cities, Marras studied at Full Sail University in Florida, earning a degree in computer animation, and working and teaching in the college’s Fine Arts department, before moving back to his hometown to pursue a full-time career as a metal sculptor. While in Florida, he also studied with master metal sculptor Marcos Cruz.
Like others, Marras believes that the art scene can act as a catalyst for the improvement of a city. “We have so much talent here, and with very little money we could make a huge difference.
“That’s what draws people to a city,” he adds. “Creative people, young people, when they come to a city and they see public art up everywhere and they see musicians on the corner, they say immediately, ‘This is a place I could live. I could live here and I could have fun here.’ We’re building all these things here, but we don’t have that bottom line of attraction, which is the arts.”
Another important component of the project is Eliza Williams, Marras’ campaign manager, and who the artist admits is pivotal to this project.
“We’re losing our 18- to 25-year-old age bracket,” she says. “We’re not retaining people, but there’s a solution to that.
“People want to feel like they live somewhere that’s cool and all that means is culture,” she adds. “Look how far we’ve come in the past five years. It’s a totally different place than it used to be. There’s a lot going on, but there’s still a lot more to go. I think it’s really cool to be living in Akron at this time.”
Williams has an impressive track record in the local arts scene, as she successfully organized music, art exhibitions and other special events at the Spot on High Street in downtown Akron.