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Cochran making a sound contribution to his hometown of Columbia

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In the early years of Columbia, William Cochran often rode his bike from his family's home in Clarksville to explore the new city, where the fountain in man-made Wilde Lake and other examples of public art made an indelible impression.

Cochran — who hails from a Howard County family of eight that includes father Ed Cochran, a former county executive, and younger sister Courtney Watson, a County Council member running for the office their father once held — was captivated by what he saw at age 10 and beyond.

"I was amazed by these objects in the cityscape that were created with the pure purpose of being beautiful," he recalled of those first encounters in the late 1960s. "It was an unusual stroke of luck to be able to watch Columbia develop, and to see what worked and what didn't."

Now, after a celebrated career in public art that has spanned 25 years and involved diverse projects in many states and the nation's capital, Cochran is coming home to tackle his first job in Howard County, creating works of art even larger in scope and significance than the ones he admired so long ago: the acoustical features called Merriweather Horns that are proposed for Symphony Woods.

"Casting is absolutely critical for something like Merriweather Park," said Michael McCall, president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust.

The trust was formed in May to oversee the design and implementation of the 16.5-acre arts park in Symphony Woods laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan, a 30-year redevelopment blueprint adopted by the county in 2010.

"I wanted to make sure we branded this park by announcing to everybody as they approach and enter that they're in a very special place," said McCall, who is on loan from Strategic Leisure, the planning and development consulting firm he co-owns and that was hired by the trust.

So he turned to Cochran, who has drawn praise for creating such public art as Community Bridge in Frederick, where a detailed painting tricks the eye into thinking the concrete span is built of stone and inset with carved symbols.

"I called William and said, 'I have this one last need,'" said McCall.

Cochran, 59, whose business partner is his wife, Teresa, joined the trust's design team as creator of Merriweather Horns, an experiential installation in five parts that will pay homage to music and nature.

"William is a very versatile and thoughtful practitioner of public art, and he took [the trust's] mandate to a whole new level by fusing the very essences of Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods," said McCall, who worked for Columbia founder James W. Rouse for a decade.

"He celebrates horns in such a beautiful, mechanized way that they appear to almost be growing in the forest," McCall added. "What he has done has woven [the project] all together."

A sound vision

Cochran said the five types of horns he envisions will "unite acoustic and botanical forms into graceful shapes" of structural stainless steel and fiberglass in order to entertain, enthrall, engage or guide visitors to the park.

"The horns will be synchronized to work in unison, creating a large-scale instrument that produces a daily evening song," he said. Visiting artists may occasionally compose music on this instrument for special events.

All take their names from natural elements — Land Horns, Sky Horns, Tone Reeds, Song Cycles and Pathfinders. The largest will be 28 feet tall.

"When people see large horns, they assume they will be loud," he said. "The horns will not be audible from a distance the way Merriweather concerts are. Their volume is modest and is fully adjustable."

Land Horns will produce a deep, rumbling melody; Sky Horns will be a suspended cluster of 12 straight horns; Tone Reeds will be a chiming array of 250 reed-like forms; and 13 Pathfinders will provide pathway directions.

Song Cycles, sculptural horns that resemble the trumpet-like blossoms of morning glories, will have actual cycles that visitors can pedal to activate light and add more robust sound. They will be located next to a bike path, setting up a playful connection between music, nature and bicycling, Cochran said.

Grant Holcomb, director of the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester in New York, said Cochran is known for playing a vital role in bringing communities together through public art.

"William thinks large and was able to show us ways to reach out and engage the surrounding community," Holcomb said of Cochran's ideas for the university's Centennial Sculpture Park.

"His knowledge of public art and artists, along with his passion for a museum's position within a community, enabled us to develop a [project] that has won two awards for its innovation and beauty," he said.

Cochran, who worked many summers during his teen years at the pavilion and at the lakefront boat docks, is thrilled to be a contributor to Symphony Woods.

"I don't know of any artist who wouldn't jump at the chance for a homecoming," he said.

And after recently working on four intense projects with darker themes — among them a towering glass sculpture titled "Pillar of Fire" that pays tribute to AIDS health care workers in Washington — he said he was ready for a project that is "associated with the fun and joy of the music that I grew up with."

Lessons of youth

All six of the Cochran children were exposed to art and culture growing up, said Mary Catherine Cochran, one of the artist's younger sisters and currently senior communications manager at Howard County General Hospital.

"Our mother would pile all of us into the family station wagon — along with a few neighbor kids, as if six weren't enough — and take us to an art class at the Corcoran Gallery of Art [in Washington] or to the theater or the ballet," she said of Joan Cochran, a real estate agent who is now retired. "Those things were integrated pretty fully into our lives."

But William Cochran didn't study art at first, majoring instead in English and philosophy at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in Westminster. Gradually he came to understand his visual art skills and his desire to integrate permanent art directly into the path of the viewer, he said.

"Bill was always an adventurous spirit who followed his own path," she said. "He was on a quest then and he still is — always searching, looking and asking questions."

Her brother's curiosity and talents will serve the community well, Mary Catherine Cochran said.

"Columbia, in its beginning stages, wanted to be an art mecca," she said. "But somewhere along the way we smothered our artistic soul. Maybe this will be our renaissance."

There was an intrinsic lesson to be gleaned from spending summers in Columbia, William Cochran said.

"I learned after working at the pavilion, the mall and the lakefront for thousands of days that those places were all connected and that there was just one downtown," he said. "Now our intent is to reshape and strengthen that connection by integrating art into the urban fabric."

To that end, Cochran said, Columbia needs "a high concentration of various attractions so there's something for everybody" in order to become a more dynamic place.

And then, he added, there's the idea that art in Columbia "should have had a deeper, more personal presence in downtown by now."

In the beginning, Columbia was a new city "not burdened by what came before," Cochran said.

"City founders provided residents with an entry-level tool kit. They said, 'Here's your downtown, here's your gathering place,'" he said. "What Jim Rouse invented was a big step forward, and the hope was that Columbia would keep reinventing itself.

"But it hasn't been a place of innovation or, historically, a risk-taking city," he said. "This moment, this place is Columbia's chance to take that step toward becoming a new kind of destination."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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