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Sculptures blossom outside Metropolitan Downtown Columbia

"With making sculptures, there's the physicality; it's not an illusion on a surface."

Inside a tiny art studio at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Mary Ann Mears sat for hours as she diligently worked on an abstract sculpture for an honors project. It was her senior year and Mears was determined to create a sculpture of abstract figures for an area on campus.

"It was my first foray into public art," Mears said. "I was making a much bigger sculpture than anyone had made in our sculpture studio. Sitting on the welding table and seeing it at eye level, it seemed big."

But, when Mears finally completed the project and took it outside, the piece seemed like a mere speck on a never-ending plane.

"[With] all those lessons about scale, vantage point and how you move around it, I began to realize how complex [sculpting] was at that point," she said.

Now a Baltimore resident, Mears' knowledge of sculpting grew just as her canvas, which she utilized during the creation of her latest piece, "Petal Play," outside the Metropolitan Downtown Columbia apartments.

On the east side's three-quarter-acre promenade, silver poles reach toward the sky with sheets of yellow, orange and green aluminum that have been flattened, twisted and stretched to form the shapes of tulip poplar trees planted throughout the area. Below, mist machines sit hidden under the concrete with puffs rising up at the touch of a button.

At the top of some pieces, Mears also constructed seedpods, detailing the intricacy of the plant as the petals slowly shift in the breeze.

"Different metals behave differently," Mears said. "This particular alloy is for marine use and aeronautical use, so it's stiffer than some aluminum. That's a good thing because it will be less likely to corrode over time."

Enlarged aluminum petals also lay across the lawn, where families can climb in, slide down and immerse themselves in the life of a poplar flower. To Mears, it's the interactive feature that drew her to the project run by the Metropolitan's developers, Kettler Development, and Design Collective landscaping.

"With making sculptures, there's the physicality; it's not an illusion on a surface," Mears said, praising the work of Kelco Industrial Fabricators who helped shape the aluminum sheets. "I do drawings and paintings, too, but I've always loved the physicality of sculpture; that is, both my own interaction as I'm building it, walking around it and being inside it. Then, that intersects with when you put it on the site and people experience it physically."

Under the Downtown Columbia development plan, Kettler Project Manager Kevin Peterkin said a requirement is set in place so that 1 percent of the project's cost is spent on art and community. With growing competition between multi-family developments in Washington and Baltimore, Peterkin believed in setting Columbia apart with "a really unique element."

"Our landscape architect came up with this concept of 'art and play' element that was based on the tulip poplar tree, which is the dominant canopy tree across the street [from the Metropolitan], in Symphony Woods and other parts of Columbia," Peterkin said. "There's an interesting angle to take the forms of the poplar tree. They have a lot of unique flower shapes and leaves."

Working with Design Collective and the Howard County Arts Council, Kettler chose five area sculptors, with three finalists presenting their concepts. Peterkin said everyone was "blown away" by Mears' ideas for the project.

"Mary Ann's presentation really grasped the 'art-and-play' concept," he said. "Her presentation involved covering up our entire board room table with a scanned printout of the parts and little models."

"They really wanted it to be interactive and appeal to kids and families," Mears added. "You think about what would intrigue you as a child and play to your imagination. Yes, there's the tulip poplar flower, but there's the wind, rain and how trees grow. We came up with these petals of thought, which give kids ideas about how they can enjoy the sculpture and the space."

One particular petal of thought, or petal-shaped plaque, stands near a tree along the promenade, telling its visitors to stop and listen to the tree's whispers, or breeze, as it moves through the branches.

"We haven't done anything like this," Peterkin said. "We've done static, one-off art pieces. I think this is how we can really engage the full space with the art. For me, personally, it's probably the most exciting part of the project."

Columbia Association President Milton Matthews said the public art is "a great amenity" to Downtown Columbia.

"Public art, generally, is a magnet," Matthews said. "There are many reasons why people will come to a downtown area, and public art complements those. We've seen in many communities how public art takes an interactive form and has succeeded in becoming an attraction alongside other features and amenities."

As other downtown development continues, Matthews said the Columbia Association, Downtown Columbia Partnership and Howard Hughes Corporation are working together to revitalize the area, including the Inner Harbor Trust in redevelopment of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and the Columbia Lakefront. The Metropolitan's additional housing downtown is also a plus.

"One of the goals of the redevelopment of the Downtown Columbia area, especially at the planned levels of intensity and density, is to make it more walkable," he said. "Having the potential of 5,500 new housing units in downtown will bring more people into the area and, along the other features of the planned redevelopment, this goal can be realized."

In addition to more housing, Howard County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said it's also a matter of "energizing the area" and "enriching the environment."

"For me, art is essential to life," Sigaty said. "[Petal Play] is one of the first few pieces in Downtown Columbia. These opportunities just make the area different from everywhere else. Each area takes on life and interest and vitality from the art that's a part of it."

Since she lives nearby, Sigaty said she makes an effort to drive by downtown's newest sculpture to engage her thoughts along with meaningful conversation.

"I love the sculpture," she said. "It gives people an opportunity to talk to each other when they may not speak with each other in passing. If you both stopped to look at it, you may make a comment to somebody you've never talked to before. If it causes you to laugh or scratch your head or to have a conversation, it's doing its job."

Now, Mears said her job is to sit back, relax and watch the community enjoy her piece.

"I'm thrilled that they care about having public art," Mears said. "I just think that that does make a huge difference. As [writer and art collector] Gertrude Stein said about her home, 'There is no there there.' But this is the 'there there.' For anyone to move around it and feel it, it's just fun."

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