On the future of giant robots, invincible cats and Camden

"Culture is the most empowering thing we can give to people."

Mechan 11, made by Tyler FuQua Creations, is a 15-foot-tall steel robot with a glowing heart chamber filled with trash. It stands on a corner in Camden, surprising drivers as they round the corner. But the biggest surprise to passersby might be that the site used to be one of dozens of spaces in the city where out-of-towners would come in to illegally dump trash.

Surprising because it’s clean now, a site of art, a site of promise; surprising because humans actually did that to other humans’ neighborhoods.

Mechan 11 was one of eight expansive public art installations and exhibitions to hit Camden this year in the A New View art project, which sought to shine a spotlight on illegal dumping through the use of public art. Now, as the temporary installations near the end of their stay in Camden in October, organizers are looking at how the impact of this series can be extended.

Curator Kimberly Camp says she hopes something permanent, a movement born in the arts to revitalize the city, comes out of the temporary saturation of art that A New View brought.

“There’s so much need for artist work-live spaces, for economic development that’s based in a creative economy,” Camp says. “It could set Camden apart in terms of how you use things we know work to revitalize the city, that builds on what has already been done and takes the energy of the arts and catapults it so that this becomes a destination.”

With funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies and organization from Rutgers, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and the City of Camden, A New View stands apart from other public art projects in New Jersey because of its message (turn trash and trashed spots into art and hope) and its medium (primarily sculpture and large-scale installations). Because the art featured in the city-wide exhibit was meant to be temporary, artists like Tyler FuQua are looking for permanent homes for their work.

Eric James Montgomery’s “Camden is… (Blight to Bright).”

While keeping the art in Camden might help push the impact of A New View into the future, it also makes sense to the artists themselves; that the art built for, and of, Camden stays in the community. 

“Ideally, we’d find a way for it to stay in Camden, that’s who we built it for,” FuQua says. “It’s got part of Camden in it: the heart chamber was designed by a local Camden high school student; a bunch of art students submitted designs, and we selected one and turned it into a 3D representation of that.”

Mechan 11 was built in Oregon, where FuQua’s team resides, and then shipped across the country on a flatbed to Camden. Curators Camp and Judith Tannenbaum whittled an application pool of 131 submissions down to 20 projects. Those finalists presented their cases in-person; Camp says the decision came down to a matrix of factors including feasibility of the project, durability, artists’ relationship to the Camden, experience of the artists, and how the Camden community (pre-COVID) might be integrated into the project, and more.

For artists Don Kennell and Lisa Adler of DKLA Design, the idea was to host workshops with Camden community members; COVID limited what they were able to do, but, as it turns out, their design of a black panther had a fortuitous connection to the city. 

“When I read about the details of the show, addressing illegal dumping, it seemed right up our alley,” Adler says. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we want to be a part of it.’ Truth is, we didn’t realize the high school mascot is the panther.”

Like many of DKLA’s pieces, Invincible Cat—a giant black panther—is made of car hoods, which are ubiquitous in landfills, Adler says. For instance, the artists can go one week and pull 20 hoods of one color, and go back the next week and pull 20 more. They’re also a useful material for the artists, as DKLA has made creatures from car hoods for a variety of locations. But Kennell says it was unique to A New View to be able to put it on a former dump site and to serve, almost, as its guardian.

DKLA Designs’ Invincible Cat; photo courtesy A New View

“With all of the pieces, these sites become activated in a new way and suddenly have a different purpose,” he says. “It takes that possibility of being a dump site off the table. We really wanted to physically embody that by creating the image of this powerful creature who is alert and watching, but is also playful.”

Adler and Kennell met while both were attending graduate school at Rutgers (before eventually moving out to Santa Fe), and one of Kennell’s first public art installations was in Camden. So, installing Invincible Cat felt like coming full circle, the artists say, and although the pandemic meant they couldn’t do as much in the city in terms of workshops, the few experiences they did have indicate the power of public art in the city.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time in Camden unfortunately over the course of the show but we’ve had some very intense experiences with people in the city,” Kennell says. “Older residents who graduated from Camden High, who, you know, I think are tired of seeing their city dumped on but also fiercely loyal to the city. Those kinds of connections, when you have someone in their 50s and they’re talking about this panther as this powerful symbol of the city… as an artist, that’s what you want.”

Adds Adler, echoing FuQua: “I would love for the panther to stay in Camden. It was very much built with that community in mind.”

Whether it, or any of the other pieces, stays in Camden or not, Camp says the hope is to open the door to more art, more opportunity, more culture.

“Culture is the most empowering thing we can give to people,” Camp says. “It’s the key to political empowerment. … You take someone to the opera for the first time and they go kicking and screaming and they leave and they go, ‘It’s not half bad,’ and they become a facilitator, and bring somebody else and bring somebody else. … People tend to get more civically engaged when they have that ability to facilitate. It has tremendous power.”