Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ottawa native transforming Texas park with peace of art

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 8/13/2014

When the light is right, the disco ball forms patterns of little dots that dance on the concrete.

The ball is not located in a retro night club, but rather is attached to the antenna of a giant anglerfish.

When the light is right, the disco ball forms patterns of little dots that dance on the concrete.

The ball is not located in a retro night club, but rather is attached to the antenna of a giant anglerfish.

That’s right. And it’s just one of dozens of elements that make up Ottawa native Matt Gifford’s latest work in Houston’s folk art-inspired Smither Park.

Houston’s Orange Show Center for Visionary Art commissioned the 27-year-old Nashville-based artist this summer to make the skin surrounding the park’s grotto and amphitheater.

Gifford, a 2005 graduate of Ottawa High School, decided to transform the bandshell — which is 25 feet tall, 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep — into a whopper of an anglerfish. The massive piece rises from the ground with a gaping mouth — complete with teeth and embellished lips — to make an entrance, he said in a recent interview with The Herald.

“I’ve always had a fascination with anglerfish, an astonishing but horrifying creature,” Gifford said. “I’m creating a cartoonized friendly creature. I don’t want the kids to be scared of it — forboding but friendly.”

Gifford, who recently created the colorful sesquicentennial poster depicting Ottawa’s history, said he always has liked sculptures and other art pieces that interact with the environment.

J. Seward Johnson’s 70-foot statue of a giant embedded in the earth in Washington D.C. provided some of the inspiration for Gifford’s mammoth anglerfish, he said.

“It’s a big bronze giant sinking into the ground,” Gifford said. “It’s a huge sculpture that you can climb on. I remember seeing that sculpture [titled “Awakening”] in D.C. on that seventh grade trip that everyone takes to the capital, and it left a big impression on me.”

Gifford’s anglerfish, though not made of bronze, is being crafted in an array of colors using found, donated and recycled materials. The art piece is expected to be comprised of scrap corrugated metal, mirrors, wrought iron railing, aluminum picture frame samples, pallet wood, scrap sheet metal, hubcaps, satellite dishes, ceramic tile, wooden rail balusters, wheel rims, recycled glass and other materials — including the disco ball, he said.

“I used two huge satellite dishes for eyes and I used wrought iron railing to turn into dorsal fins,” Gifford said of just a couple of examples of how the materials are being used.

Though artists have created a number of animal caricatures in Smither Park, Gifford’s giant anglerfish protruding from the ground is in keeping with an aquatic theme that flows throughout the park and its memory wall, he said.

Graduating with a fine arts degree from the University of Kansas in fall 2009, Gifford said he enjoys working on folk art projects.


Growing up around his father Mark Gifford’s contracting business in Ottawa, Gifford used those experiences and the training he received at KU to become seasoned with torches, soldering, holloware and welding to create folk art from recycled and found materials.

“I was using a table saw before I learned how to drive,” Gifford, who plans to return to Ottawa Sept. 6 for the city’s 150th birthday celebration, said.

Gifford, the son of Mark and Melinda Gifford, Ottawa, said he is looking forward to coming back to Ottawa for the sesquicentennial celebration. He is hopeful people will enjoy the poster.

“I learned there was a little more flair to Ottawa’s past than I realized, and I wanted the poster to breathe some new life into the town’s perception of itself,” Gifford said.

The poster took hours to complete, Gifford said, and uses historical and iconic images to showcase the community’s history — from the familiar Franklin County Courthouse to the not-so-familiar image of The Star Laundry heating boiler that exploded Dec. 27, 1912, from 120 N. Main St. and launched across a block and a half of Main Street.

“The result is kind of a whimsical art poster,” Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher and who is chairing a steering committee organizing the community celebration, said in a recent interview. “I think he’s done kind of an interesting job putting the facts of the [historical] elements in a frame. Some of them are further back in history than others, like the [heating boiler] that blew up. That’s just kind of fun. That didn’t have to be there; he just liked that element.”

After graduating from KU, Gifford gravitated to Huntsville, Texas, to work for Dan Phillips, a renowned designer and builder who started the company Phoenix Commotion, Gifford said. Phoenix Commotion focuses on designing eco-friendly homes for low-income individuals and families, such as struggling artists and single mothers, according to the company. One of the company’s goals also is to reduce burdens on landfills through the use of excess and recycled materials.

“It was a really great phase [of my career] working for him,” Gifford said. “Stephanie Smither asked Dan to be the lead artist on the park [named in memory of her late husband and folk art enthusiast John Smither], and she saw my work and was really impressed with it and wanted me to work on the park.”


Whether it was drawing a sketch of the anglerfish or designing Ottawa’s sesquicentennial poster, Gifford said, he has always had a love for drawing — dating back to sketching cartoon characters in his youth.

“I could sit for hours drawing Looney Tunes,” Gifford said.

Drawing — from sketching a cartoon to designing a giant work of folk art like the anglerfish — always have been important to Gifford, he said.

“Pen and paper translate what you are thinking,” he said.

One of the more difficult aspects of crafting the anglerfish has been collecting enough materials to meet Gifford’s needs, he said.

“If you want a motif of hubcaps, you need more than five or 10,” he said.

Another challenge has been working around the Texas summer heat.

“It’s been pretty hot down there, and trying to do a project like this has been really taxing,” Gifford said. “My father has come down a lot to help. I hope to have it finished by early September.”

The hard work will be worth it, Gifford said of his unique creation that could be used for a variety of functions including films, concerts, theater performances, weddings and other outdoor events.

“I’m not into gallery settings,” Gifford said. “I would prefer to have some big structure in a park that people can see. The public element appeals to me more. People can ingest it whenever they choose. Hopefully this [anglerfish bandshell] will be used for years and years to come.”

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