Columbus State professors collaborate on unique RiverWalk sculpture

A new sculpture has been installed on the Chattahoochee RiverWalk near the old Eagle & Phenix Mill — and it is vastly different from any other piece of public art in the city.

Two Columbus State University professors — sculptor Michael McFalls and poet Nick Norwood — collaborated on the project commissioned by W.C. Bradley Co. President and CEO Marc Olivié and his wife, Marleen De Bode Olivié.

Norwood perfected the words, all 62 of of them, in a poem he titled “Powerhouse.” The words roll with the power of the river and the history they describe.

McFalls turned one art form into another, a sculpture that stretches 73 yards along the top of a retaining wall between two of the three Eagle & Phenix riverfront mill buildings that were renovated into condominiums and apartments.

“The poem is about Columbus, the mill culture, and it just so happens to be in the very spot it is written about,” Norwood said last week.

There is no punctuation, no capitalization, just 288 letters made up of Corten steel, designed to weather the crush of the elements.

The poem reads:

“now that you are here/ amid crag and gleam/ mist-rise and vapor/ dark jade frothing/ into white lace/ here where the rains/ come to gargle/ spit jets of spray/ see herons creep/ smokestacks peer/ through high windows/ spirits sleep/ spool and spindle/ shaft and shackle/ tie-snake and eagle/ sit still/ as an old powerhouse/ and mind your moorings/ the river roaring”

Norwood, a Columbus State University creative writing professor who has spent part of the last two years writing poetry about Columbus and its history, crafted the poem after he was approached by McFalls.

“Part of it is adapted from lines from other poems,” Norwood said. “But I really consider this poem a collaboration of all of us — Marc, Marleen, Mike and myself.”

The art, recently installed by construction company Brasfield & Gorrie, has gone largely unnoticed as it sits in places 20 feet above the popular exercise and walking path that runs next to the Chattahoochee River. It took 1,200 holes in the concrete wall for the letters, which range in height from 6 to 10 inches, to be secured.

Parts of the sculpture can be seen from the Oliviés’ fourth-floor Eagle & Phenix condominium.

“The inspiration is very clear,” said Marleen Olivié. “We look at the river, the buildings, and we just love it as part of Columbus. Then we watched everything changing over the years and being restored — the river, the powerhouses — and we wanted a way to celebrate that.”

The Oliviés moved to Columbus about eight years ago when Marc became the top executive at the W.C. Bradley Co. They began talking to McFalls about a year ago about a piece of public art. Marleen is on the Georgia Council for the Arts, and the two have been active in the local arts community.

As the powerhouses, which fueled the Eagle & Phenix textile mills for decades, were being restored, the Oliviés thought it would be ideal to have a piece of art around them.

“We started talking to Mike and came up with some ideas,” Marc Olivié said. “None of us felt good about hanging sculptures from the roof or hanging sculptures on the building. Mike showed us a poem on a building, and we knew of poems on buildings in Belgium, where we are from.”

McFalls brought the Norwood poem to the Oliviés for consideration. The words struck the chord the Oliviés were looking for.

The original idea was to place the poem on the powerhouses.

“We had some designs done, and it really didn’t look good,” Marc Olivié said.

The epiphany, as Marc Olivié described it, came with the suggestion to place it across from the powerhouses.

“The whole poem talks about the history, the river, the powerhouses. It is just a beautiful summary,” Marc Olivié said.

McFalls called the project an “interdisciplinary collaboration.”

“It was my hope and ambition that Nick’s poem and this work become a defining feature of Columbus, one which draws people to the river and makes them think about the place in a way they have never thought about it before,” McFalls said.

“I see this as a piece that asks the viewer to interact with the landscape, the space, and a poem in a way they never have. It requires them to engage physically with the poem by walking down the river to follow it.”

It is far different from reading a poem on a piece of paper or a computer screen, McFalls said.

“Nick’s poem has the pace and rhythm of the river and brings a bit of context and history for the reader about the very place that they are encountering at that moment,” he said.

It was different from much of McFalls’ work and presented opportunities and challenges.

“It was my intention that the viewer/reader would stumble across the work, almost wonder how long it had been there,” he said. “I wanted it to feel as it had always been there, subtle and part of the landscape.”

The Oliviés have donated the sculpture to Uptown Columbus Inc., a nonprofit downtown development organization. But for them, it was a gift to their adopted hometown.

“For us, it is also a way of saying how much we love this place and saying ‘thank you’ for the ability to enjoy this, live here and be here,” Marc Olivié said.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams