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Enjoy Myrtle Beach’s Iconic Public Art Installation

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath

In the shadow of the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel, in the middle of Plyler Park, stands a beautiful bronze sculpture of a mermaid frolicking with two dolphins in the ocean called Goddess of the Sea, by the internationally renowned artist, Kristen Visbal. When the 12-foot, 1800-pound piece was dedicated at the Sun Fun Festival on June 1st, 2018, many outside of the art world knew Visbal’s name because of another of her art installations from the year before in March of 2017, Fearless Girl.

It depicts a young lady, 50 inches tall, wearing a timeless dress with leggings and high tops.  Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail that looks as if it is blowing slightly in a breeze.  Her face has a neutral expression, but with her hands on her hips and her chin held high she communicates an unmistakable message of assurance. 

What made images of this installation go viral was where it was installed…directly in front of the famed Charging Bull sculpture in Bowling Green Park in the Wall Street Historic District of New York City. It took five hours the night before in the freezing cold for Fearless Girl to be installed temporarily for International Women’s Day but was so instantly popular it was allowed to stay. She and her artist were literally an overnight success story.

However the story of what I like to think of as Fearless Girl’s big sister in Myrtle Beach, our Goddess of the Sea, began a dozen years before.  In 2005, the now world famous Kristen Visbal, had to submit her idea to a competition to be considered for the project.   The goal was to have someone create public art that reflected both the majestic and playful ocean-side spirit of our city. 

The person who is credited with coming up with this idea from the start is Buz Plyler, the owner of another Myrtle Beach icon, The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, which is next door to Plyler Park named for his father, Justin.  The elder Mr. Plyler and his wife founded the Gay Dolphin just after WWII in its current location between what is now the Boardwalk and North Ocean Boulevard.

Once the winning design was chosen, the long campaign to raise the money to pay for it began.  While others may have contributed, press releases throughout the process credit three primary monetary sources:  Buz Plyler, the City of Myrtle Beach which provided matching funds, and a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization, The Myrtle Beach Downtown Public Art Initiative (PAI).

On December 10th, 2014, the PAI held a public reception to honor the Goddess of the Sea.  In their press release for the event, they share that their “goal is to establish an aesthetic environment in downtown Myrtle Beach and to develop a public art program for the city” and that Goddess of the Sea was their inaugural project.  In fact, they said that “the Myrtle Beach Downtown Public Art Initiative [was] created [in order] to commission the Goddess work and to reinvent the landscape of Myrtle Beach through art."

The creation of Goddess of the Sea was completed in three phases. Initially, Kristen Visbal sculpted a 21-inch model that was enlarged to a 6’7” clay model.  In the second phase, another enlargement resulted in a 12-foot clay model.  The final bronze casting came about in phase three. 

The enlargement process is fairly high-tech and has only been around since the very end of the last century.  The official name for the technique is digital enlargement.  It replicates the shape of the artist’s initial work by carving stiff blocks of plastic foam with a robotic arm.  The artist then assembles the blocks and carves the details again.  Afterwards, the surface is applied with clay and the details are modeled back in.  The end result is more accurate than that achieved with historical enlargement methods. 

The work that now graces our shores in Plyler Park was created not too far from another popular beach on the Atlantic Ocean, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  It’s often called the “Nations Summer Capital” because so many politicians and others from Washington, DC, flock there in the warmer months.  Kristen Visbal makes her home there. 

Just over a half-hour away from Rehoboth, you’ll find the artist’s workspace in a most picturesque location near Lewes, Delaware.  Since 1999, her modeling studio has been located at the Nassau Valley Vineyards. 

They were the first commercial wine vineyard to exist in the state when they opened in 1993.  Because, prior to that time, farm wineries were against the law in Delaware.  So the family who owns it drafted legislation and lobbied the Delaware General Assembly to create Farm Winery legislation which made such vineyards legal in 1991. 

It just so happens that Kristen enjoys wine.  She said once in an interview that, in her free time, she likes going out in Rehoboth for good food and wine and walking on the beach. She would fit in well here.  In fact, she has frequented the Grand Strand in the past.  At Brookgreen Gardens, she would often participate in their former annual Curator’s Auction.

She is a member of the National Sculpture Society where her work has sometimes been exhibited.  It has also been on display at various galleries and exhibitions, most notably at Lincoln Center and the National Arts Club in New York. It was even seen at the Symposium for the Preservation and Biology of Sea Turtles in Orlando, Florida. 

In her portfolio on her website, you can see how she classifies her work in various categories such as Public Works and Monuments, Lifesize Children’s Series and Wildlife Series.  I like that our Goddess of the Sea falls under the category of Marine Life Series.  Where else would you find a mermaid?

Born in Uruguay, Kristen Visbal is the daughter of an American Foreign Service diplomat and a painter.  She grew up in the United States and attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, later earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1995 from Salisbury State University in Maryland.   

I was surprised to learn that her career did not begin in the art world.  She started out in the hotel industry in the Washington, DC, Regional Sales Office of Omni Hotels.  She worked with the DC-based National Association of Meeting Planners during which time she coordinated a city-wide blood drive and served as treasurer for the Society of Government Meeting Planners.

But then it all made sense when I realized that, in the three years since graduating from college (1995 to 1998), she had been a participant in the world renowned apprentice program at the prestigious Johnson Atelier Art Foundry in Mercerville, New Jersey, which closed after 32 years in 2004.  She studied the ancient process of lost wax casting which Kristen explains in detail on her website.

She then began the career path that she is now known for, working with her medium of choice, bronze.  The artist started Visbal Fine Bronze Sculpture in Lewes, Delaware, in 1998.  She submitted the winning design for Goddess of the Sea in 2005, and then, 11 years later in November of 2016, she was contacted by an ad agency to create a statue of a little girl for their client.  That changed her life. 

By the way, you won’t find Fearless Girl in Bowling Green Park anymore.  She was moved at the end of 2018 and now stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange.  The sculptor of Charging Bull complained that she was making the bull look like a bully and was hurting his positive reputation. 

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