Campus art gives community space to gather, celebrate

On a recent cool Florida morning, light streamed in and broke into beams around the raised-scale texture of an iconic University of Florida holiday display. 

Every year before the Holiday Gator is transported to its seasonal home, a UF maintenance team uses an air hose and some lint cloths to freshen it up. No chemical cleaners — they want to preserve the black oxide finish.  

On Wednesday, the large, forged steel alligator sculpture that has been placed on the lawn in celebration of the coming holiday season will be illuminated for the first time this year.

The festivities, set for 5 - 6 p.m., will feature performances by members of three UF student groups—the Gator Marching Band, the UF Sunshine Steelers and the UF Concert Choir—as well as hot chocolate, apple cider and other holiday treats. President Kent Fuchs will lead the countdown to the ceremonial lighting of the alligator statue. 

When Fuchs commissioned the steel sculpture from metal artist and UF College of the Arts alumna Leslie Tharp in the fall of 2019, he wanted to joyously mark all campus had accomplished through the semester. Wednesday’s celebration will be the second since the statue was created, since last year’s festivities were cancelled due to the pandemic. 

The holiday gator serves as a reminder of that pre-pandemic message: the joy of making it through the semester is worth celebration.

Tharp sculpted the Holiday Gator in a two-month sprint, and the UF electric team fit the gator with colored LEDs. 

"When I was a student, the sculptures and architecture stood out to me because campus has an air that’s traditional but inviting," Tharp said. "But I never thought I would be an artist contributing to campus."

She earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the UF College of the Arts in 2008 and has been making public art since. 

Her workshop-slash-studio is tucked in the back of a small warehouse complex in North Gainesville. Behind two corrugated metal garage doors, ground steel particles cover the floor, black fairy dust from which metallic figures and sculptures are born. A cloud of heavy motor oil smell lingers around a Mayers Brothers Little Giant power hammer, fabricated in 1908. Smaller, hand-held hammers hang from hooks mounted below an anvil forged in 1883. Here, Tharp crafts modern art rooted in a traditional trade.  

A life-sized horse sculpture stands mid-stride in the studio, a collaboration she is working on with a local glass artist Sarah Hinds for the Alachua County Agriculture and Equestrian Center.

Behind the gentle curves of the horse’s rump, a green chalkboard hangs from the wall, a checklist scrawled in pink of what limb gets assembled next.

“Public art brings something into a space, an energy that happens,” she said. “In its public interactions, art speaks to us on a lot of different levels, cultural, historical, philosophical. It changes the landscape of your daily experience.”

Oaklianna Caraballo, the art in state buildings administrator at UF, built her career in understanding why and how these art and community spaces on college campuses are so significant.

"When you're in a built environment, art has the ability to humanize the space and offer these unique moments for reflection or joy or really any emotion," she said. "That experience is further enriched on a college campus because we collectively are engaged in research and solving problems, and that's no different than what artists do — that experience of solving problems for a better world." 

Caraballo added, "Public art on our campus helps to create the sense of place where collaboration and research can take place. The goals of public art and higher education complement each other in this way, while defining moments in shared human experience."

Public art asks passersby to stop for a moment and be present with their surroundings. And public art at UF lets members of the UF community still experience a common icon throughout the various changes of time. 

"Isn't it interesting how suddenly our priorities, what catches our attention, what feels more necessary than ever, are these moments where we can feel safe coming together?" Caraballo asks. "Think about what it's like to gather around a beloved symbol and experience the smell of hot cocoa—these humanizing things are what public art at large can speak to in a community."

The Holiday Gator will be on display until the end of class on Dec. 17. During the off season, the sculpture will be returned to rest on wooden rolling dollies in an Easter-yellow warehouse on the west side of campus. 

On a recent weekday, Darrell Pons, UF's superintendent of grounds, crunched down an old asphalt road in well worn sneakers toward the warehouse and cranked the garage door open using the chain pulleys. 

He postponed his retirement a few weeks to stick around and help set up the gator and coordinate the event. Most people probably wouldn't move the culmination of their careers to help with a holiday event, but there's something special about gathering with the community these days.

Article by Emily Cardinali; Photos and video by Brianne Lehan and Brian Sandusky December 2, 2021