For acclaimed polymedia artist Eto Otitigbe, his abstract sculpture honoring Mount Vernon’s Heavy D is much more than just an ode to the hip-hop pioneer. The sculpture, a monumental marble and steel arch that rests at the entrance of Mount Vernon’s luxury high-rise 42 Broad, was a joint effort of ArtsWestchester, Alexander Development Group, The Bluestone Organization, and J.P. Morgan Global Alternatives. “If you look at the artwork, it doesn’t visually strike you with anything that directly relates to Heavy D’s lyrics or anything of that nature,” says Otitigbe of Peaceful Journey. “But what it does speak to is the idea of innovation and the idea of transition.”
Born in Bethel, NY, Otitigbe spent time living in Nigeria before moving with his parents to Albany, where he primarily spent his childhood. He went on to attend MIT and eventually founded his own Brooklyn arts studio, in 2009. Since, Otitigbe has participated in the design and installation of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia and created an installation-and-performance piece with artist Zane Rodulfo at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum.
Throughout his career, public art has remained paramount to Otitigbe. “I really fell in love with this idea of public art,” says Otitigbe. “An object that you encounter in a public space is kind of like an interruption of that space. The way you access these objects is also very different from how you might access an object in a museum or a gallery, since you don’t have to pay admission or pass through security.”
So, when Otitigbe first noticed an online call for public artists by ArtsWestchester, he jumped at the chance. “It was just a very general call for public art; they let us know the location, but the theme wasn’t specified,” says Otitigbe. Out of hundreds of applicants, Otitigbe was selected. During the process, he discussed the project at length with Alexander Development Group, The Bluestone Organization, and ArtsWestchester.
“I had the context from ArtsWestchester and from Alexander Development Group and I was thinking, What is my own personal stake in a project like this? What brings me to share my artwork with Mount Vernon?” says Otitigbe. “And where I saw intersections happening was through music, through hip-hop, because I remember growing up with hip-hop, playing hip-hop all the time, dancing in the streets with my friends. And I remember artists like Heavy D, Pete Rock, and C.L. Smooth always calling out where they were from, and hearing ‘money earnin’ Mount Vernon’ mentioned. So, I said, ‘Hey, I am in Mount Vernon now. This is where Heavy D was from.’ And I now had a personal reference to this space.”
Otitigbe was also moved by the evolution of Mount Vernon itself. “I was really inspired by the fact that this area of Mount Vernon was in transition and that there was a lot of concerted effort in the design of the building to make the architecture sustainable,” says Otitigbe, who worked with architect Michael DiCarlo to design Peaceful Journey.
The arch’s materials and form were carefully chosen to echo this idea of transition as well as the region’s history. “The materials and also the experience that each artwork invites are really the result of the conceptual message that I would like to share with an audience,” says Otitigbe. “It is also the result of some of the historical or background information I received trough researching the subject.”
For instance, the Vermont Fantastico marble used is, according to Otitigbe, “metamorphic rock that has these interesting lines because it was once a flowing material millions of years ago. So, even though you have this solid, monolithic piece of stone, visually it has an indication of transition and movement.” Similarly, he notes that the surface of the COR-TEN steel used in the sculpture will weather and oxidize over time. “It has actually already begun to change,” he says.
For Otitigbe, “all those ideas were ways for the formal qualities of the material to intersect with these concepts of transition in Mount Vernon, innovation in Heavy D’s music, and this idea of being original, which is so important to hip-hop,” he says.
Yet above all, the arch is a kind of portal to the future of Mount Vernon, and a model for a city suffused with art and culture. “I think this public art offers the city an opportunity to celebrate what makes it really unique,” says Otitigbe. “What I heard during the unveiling is that it allows the city to look forward to its future as a creative space and to the next generation of artists from Mount Vernon, whether they be in music, visual art, or dance. So, this is kind of a landmark for them to think collectively about how the city can build a creative future together.”
“I was really inspired by the fact that this area of Mount Vernon was in transition and that there was a lot of concerted effort in the design of the building to make the architecture sustainable.”
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