Tribute to Linemen – Changing Lives, Perspectives, and Communities

Overlooking Lake Mirror from the Lakeland Electric building stands a unique sculpture honoring community first-responders. In June 2018, Platform Art unveiled Tribute to Linemen, a significant public art piece designed by three Lakeland High School students and fabricated by nationally renowned artist, Becky Ault. The seeds for the project were planted in 2016 when Tracy Moore, personally impacted by the danger of this work by the loss of her husband, approached us with the idea to recognize Linemen as first-responders in times of natural and accidental disasters.

Project Concept & Background

Electric utility workers are unsung first-responders, and a few key community members, some of whom had lost friends or family members on the job, came together to organize a tribute to the labor and recognition of linemen. A partnership was formed, and Platform Art began to seek funding from those who shared our enthusiasm to tell this important story. The State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs agreed and loved our proposal to involve students in the design process and fabrication. The National Endowment for the Arts invited us to apply, the City of Lakeland supported the plan, and others stepped up to provide the funds and resources. A dream was born, and a student design competition was launched.

Angel, Maddie, and Gabriella’s story.

After working with high schools across Polk County, the student design competition culminated at PlatformKids 2018. Of all the talented Polk County students who competed, Angel Rose, Maddie McDaniel, and Gabriella Thomas created a winning design that wove together themes of community, connectedness, and sacrifice into a beautiful whole. They would see their design fabricated and transformed into a large-scale piece of public art and would travel to artist Becky Ault’s studio, known as AR, in Lancaster, PA for a hands-on learning experience. When Becky Ault visited classrooms during the fall semester, introducing the project and leading workshops and information sessions for students, an idea was sparked for Angel, Maddie, and Gabriella almost immediately. They brainstormed and scoured the junk room for materials. After a semester of hard work, they were chosen as the sculpture design winners. They and their teacher, Kim Mortimer, were ecstatic, celebrating with chocolate chip cookies and giddy incredulity. With a year having passed since the project completion, we checked in with the students, and Ms. Mortimer, to see how the Linemen Project impacted their lives, perspectives, and our community.

CHANGING lives.

Tribute to Linemen exemplifies Platform Art’s commitment to offering student artists opportunities to work in the public realm. Angel, Maddie, and Gabriella recently reiterated how unique and incredible their experience was; even Ms. Mortimer shared that her life had been changed. Gabriella is graduating from LHS this month, and Maddie and Angel are attending college courses after graduating last year. Their involvement with Platform Art contributed to both their educational and personal growth during this season of change.

Workshops and artistic development are a vital part of Platform Art’s student engagement, and Becky and Ms. Mortimer worked closely with the girls at each stage of the process – refining ideas, designs, and models. As they worked on their piece, they learned the elements of design and new techniques, both in and out of the classroom. They received an education in public art – not just its history, but the struggle of adapting designs to different settings, contexts, and publics. They gained hands-on experience. Finally, they learned about potential career paths, which provided educational professionalization and fostered their personal growth.

From their work in the studio, the girls started to see themselves as artists. Visiting the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design solidified this view and provided exposure to studios, equipment, current student and faculty work, and more. In Angel’s words, “I’d never visited any art colleges before, so it was like ‘I could actually do this, I could go to school and do art.’” 

The three budding artists learned to refine their ideas and incorporate constructive critique, as well as learned how to accomplish their goals together. Working through creative differences, they fostered and maintained a close relationship. (These young women still check in on each other frequently.) They resolved conflicts, bonded over airport greetings, and saw their ideas made into molten metal – an unforgettable experience for them all. When they first walked into the studio and saw their work, Ms. Mortimer said, “I looked at my girls, and they were all crying.” 

CHANGING perspectives.

A shift in perspective, opening their eyes to new ways of seeing oneself and the world, was a huge part of Angel, Maddie, and Gabriella’s personal growth. The Tribute to Linemen project pushed them outside their comfort zones (for some, onto an airplane for the first time). At AR, they experienced new techniques and materials, and saw, for the first time, metalwork demonstrations. They opened themselves and their art to critique in a public forum. They visited places they’d never been – from a forge to an art college to an historic B&B. They tried new foods (and found that tacos de lengua are not to everyone’s liking). These shared experiences helped them learn, grow, expand their perspectives, and deepen their relationships. 

From Ms. Mortimer, they learned the importance of mentorship. Whenever they felt overwhelmed, Ms. Mortimer offered advice and encouragement. She supported their perseverance and helped them learn another valuable lesson: art, like so many other worthwhile endeavors, is about the process. According to Ms. Mortimer, “In the end, it’s glamorous and wonderful, but the process is not always fun or pretty. It’s hard work. It’s tedious, time-consuming, mess-up-do-again.” They learned to face setbacks and disappointment. Mistakes will happen, as the girls witnessed firsthand in Becky’s studio. When a piece comes out of the mold with a crack, you fix it and try again.

But, more importantly, it opened Maddie, Gabriella, and Angel’s eyes to new opportunities for themselves. While in Lancaster, our young artists assisted in the studio. They talked with AR’s artists and fabricators and representatives at college. They felt for the first time as if they were speaking ‘artist-to-artist,’ which strengthened their own artistic voices. Seeing the final product unveiled downtown strengthened their newly discovered artistic voices even more. From taking homecoming photos in front of the sculpture to admiring it with a group of friends, the pleasure of seeing their work brought to life – the pride of seeing it displayed permanently – will stay with them throughout their lives.

CHANGING communities.

In addition to producing some life-changing experiences, this project produced a 12-foot permanent sculpture that benefits our community. Public art enriches the cultural lives of communities, and Tribute to Linemen enhances one of Lakeland’s busiest public spaces, overlooking Lake Mirror. In the process, Platform Art developed new ties and collaborations – locally and nationally. We also strengthened some of our existing partnerships. We serve the community better, together, as we discovered during Hurricane Irma.

When Hurricane Irma tore through Florida in late 2017, it flooded parts of Lakeland and created a swath of downed trees and damaged buildings. Much of the city lost power, and a fleet of linemen immediately got to work restoring it – quietly and behind the scenes. As the young artists found in their research, the job is “crazy dangerous,” which is quite the Gen-X understatement; according to a recent AFL-CIO report on workplace safety, power line workers face a fatality rate roughly six times higher than the national average.

Tributes for electric linemen are few and far between. This sculpture, which was inspired by a lineman who lost his life on the job, stands as an important, permanent recognition of the work of linemen, our reliance on their work, and their significant impact on our community. We’ve heard from utility union members across the country, some of whom have crossed state lines to view the sculpture, how meaningful this piece is to them.

WHAT’S next?

Lives, Perspectives, and Communities were all impacted by this project – and so were we. Platform Art is dedicated to community-conscious collaboration, so we are using this student-design model in our next public art project. Slated for completion in 2020, our next project – Bonnet Springs Park Sensory Sculpture – will be designed by students at All Saints Academy. Learn more about that project here

Stay tuned for future updates!

Most people look at and admire a public work of art but give little thought as to all that is required to make it happen.  For me, this experience with Platform made me so aware of it’s complexity.  It is a multi-layered endeavor that takes an amazing amount of orchestration!  Cynthia was masterful and we all feel so grateful to her and Platform for an unforgettable experience!
On our end, there was certainly a team approach of “conception, problem solving, and production” of the model.  But we were only one part of the overall team involved in the process and the making of the Linemen Sculpture.  We were able to see the complex workings behind the scene of a professional studio with Becky, Mike, and their team, of “production, fabrication, and installation”.  This certainly was an opportunity that most high school students never get to experience.   I know that it had a positive, eye opening effect on my Angel, Gabby, and Maddie…what an amazing experience it was for these 3 girls and for me as well! – Kim Mortimer, LHS teacher