Five brand-new squat racks. Two full sets of kettlebells. A trio of 180-pound, life-size, metallic pelicans.
There have been plenty of updates made to the St. Paul’s School Athletic & Fitness Center this summer, but none as compelling as the three bird sculptures adorning the rafters of the atrium. What had previously been a space to display boat club banners has transformed into a setting for a dynamic public art installation, courtesy of sculptor Katherine “KT” Taylor ’93.
“It is easier to get into Harvard than to get a piece of public art accepted,” noted Taylor, “and this is the first big public piece I’ve been able to do, and it’s so great to have a school like St. Paul’s behind you.”
The commission took flight in 2015 when fine arts faculty member Colin Callahan (who was head of house for Taylor, her brother, Van ’91, and her sister, Christie ’00) approached Taylor with a budget and location for the piece, but no concept. With creatures being Taylor’s forte, she was quick to suggest the idea of creating a pelican, and the project grew from there. The first step of the process: immersion.
While visiting Santa Barbara, Calif., for a friend’s wedding, Taylor hopped in a kayak and spent two days observing the plethora of pelicans that inhabited the local islands. During a surfing trip to Costa Rica some months later, she passed on a number of rideable waves in order to witness pelicans flying and diving from her surfboard perch. “That’s part of the work: researching the animal and learning about it,” said Taylor, who was surprised to learn that pelicans can weigh as little at seven pounds, despite sizeable wingspans. “The chance to interact with your subject animal in nature, that’s a really big deal. As an artist, that’s my source of inspiration; the place you go back to when you get stuck.”
Teamwork has always been an essential aspect of Taylor's process, and when it came time to start crafting the pelicans, she made sure to empower her “teammates.” Each bird has more than 100 feathers on it, but the process of casting long, thin pieces of metal is laborious and delicate. “We made about 500 feathers out of wax, we cast them, and none of them came out,” recalls Taylor. “So we made 500 more, cast them and again, none of them came out. The people at the foundry wanted to take the blame, but I said ‘I don’t care whose fault it is, we are a team.’ It was a real demonstration of the ethos of how we work together. And where is that stemming from? It’s my time on teams and living in dorms and experiencing the camaraderie at St. Paul’s.”
It took time for Taylor to find her footing as a student at SPS. Hampered by a learning disability, she found math and science courses to be especially challenging, despite the effort she was putting towards the classwork. It wasn’t until she stepped into a ceramics class that she discovered everything that felt like a disability in the STEM world was a strength in the arts: “It was a real revelation to be in a place where my hard work was paying off and being appreciated and noticed.”
Taylor was able to refocus her energy towards the arts during her first year at Dartmouth, and four years later, she was winging to Australia for her M.F.A. at the University of Melbourne, having secured the Reynolds Scholarship to fund her international studies. Her work took her to London and eventually Spain, but her tie to SPS remained strong, exhibiting pieces in group exhibitions at the School and being part of collections in the Concord area. In 2009, Taylor returned to Millville as the artist-in-residence, roosting in the apartment atop the old art gallery and guiding students through their own artistic endeavors.
Her strong connection to SPS paved the way to the “Leaf Pelicans” commission, and it also informed elements she incorporated into the work. Each different texture present on the sculptures comes from an element found on the grounds of St. Paul’s School. Molds cast from a wind-eaten piece of wood next to Library Pond form the bellies of the birds, local cornhusks helped create the texture on the birds’ pouches, and various leaves from around SPS inspired the look of the wings and feet. It is a process Taylor refers to as “natural texture swapping,” and it helps give an authentic quality to her works.
With her pelicans in place among the rafters of the AFC, Taylor’s attention now turns to her next installation featuring birds of the Arctic (she spent much of June in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago above the Arctic Circle doing research). But her hopes for the SPS piece are in line with the message she delivered to students in her time as a visiting artist. “The most important thing is not to be afraid to make mistakes," she says. "There are no answers in the back of the book for this stuff. No pelicans like this have been made or put up in the air, so there’s no formula to follow. So you have to be open and willing and start out with really good ingredients.”