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Artist designs dramatic sculpture for Arlington roundabout

Published on April 4, 2023 at 4:10 pm

An obelisk of bronze and glass will soon blossom from the center of a traffic roundabout outside the entrance to Jacksonville University to honor the city’s history, as well as that of the Arlington community.

The work of Shan Shan Sheng of San Francisco, the four-sided obelisk will feature plaques honoring the city’s naval history as well as an historic silent-film studio and city bridge near the private university.

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Sheng was picked during a search in 2019 for an artist to add sculpture to the then-planned “turbo” roundabout — a roundabout with multiple lanes and spiral road markings. She said her inspiration for the bronze reliefs and colors on the obelisk will become part of the Arlington community’s history.

“Look at these people doing filmmaking, and that they built a bridge, then they have aircraft carrier — wow, this is something very advanced, industrial,” the 65-year-old artist said, reflecting on what future onlookers will say in years to come. “And then they see all the very nice environmental designs, and the ocean. … I just think that this material is very permanent, and we want to leave something for the next generation to discover what we have.”

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Artist Shan Shan Sheng looks at a rendition of her bronze and glass obelisk on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, during a site visit at Jacksonville University. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

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For those who fear Sheng’s multicolored design could fall victim to traffic that misses the roundabout, its concrete platform will be atop a taller landscaped base, starting with a 9-foot core of bronze with colorful glass above, College of Fine Arts & Humanities Dean Tim Snyder said. From the ground to the obelisk tip, it will stand 31 feet tall.

“Above all, we wanted the artwork to relate to the community, to its surroundings,” he said. “The actual glass, highly tempered and very sturdy, begins at 11 feet above ground level. This also rests on a pedestal of 7 feet. You have nearly 20 feet of elevation before the glass begins. That’s a major safety consideration, and it’s engineered that way.”

The $4 million JTAMobilityWorks’ Arlington Turbo Roundabout — said to be the only one of its kind in the city and possibly in the country — was officially opened 14 months ago at University Boulevard North and Merrill Road. It is designed to eliminate traffic backups, speeding and crashes at an intersection that sees about 30,000 cars a day. The roundabout replaced traditional traffic signals and turn lanes.

An illustration of the bronze and glass obelisk as designed by San Francisco artist Shan Shan Sheng, with a human figure to show scale. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville TodayThe turbo roundabout concept first arose as part of the Arlington Community Redevelopment Area Plan adopted by the City Council some years ago. Construction started in July 2020. The design lets traffic flow through dedicated lanes circling a landscaped median without stopping except for when walkers or bicyclists trigger crosswalk signals.

Long before the roundabout was opened in February 2022, Jacksonville University and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville reached out for an artist to add something special atop what is now just a round mound of grass.

“This was a dream several of us had going back to 2018, when we decided that if we were going to have a one-of-a-kind turbo roundabout at the entrance to the university, it needed something artistic in the center,” Snyder said. “We wanted that something to be a site-specific, monumental sculpture of some size to make an impression, and not only to be a fitting work of art to mark the entrance, but also a place that is a love letter to the community.”

The aim was to find a work of art that “speaks to the revitalization” that is occuring in Arlington and tells the community that it matters, he said.

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The turbo roundabout as built in front of Jacksonville University’s entrance at University Boulevard North and Merrrill Road. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

To that end, a committee that included the Cultural Council, plus Snyder, local artists and engineers, was formed to review the more than 40 proposals received during a national search.

Three finalists were picked to come to JU to meet with the committee in spring 2019 and show their proposals, Sheng was chosen after community feedback, Snyder said.

“The artistic piece that impressed us so much is that at the base of this obelisk in a brushed bronze are four panels,” he said. “Shan Shan has created a relief inscription of three images that relate to the community. One is an aircraft carrier from Naval Station Mayport.”

Another is an image of the 111-year-old National Historic Landmark Norman Studios’ Production Building on Arlington Road, the only remaining piece of Jacksonville’s busy silent-filmmaking past. A dedication plaque and a bronze image of the Mathews Bridge decorate the other bronze base quadrants. And while most drivers won’t be able to see the designs, those walking by will see them as the glass obelisk “rests on pieces of the history of this community,” Snyder said.

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Workers move one of the four glass panels to be installed in artist Shan Shan Sheng’s obelisk art project in front of Jacksonville University. | Jan Peters

The Shanghai-born artist said she proposed that the work take the shape of an ancient obelisk as seen in Rome and Egypt, which also had designs on each side to reflect their community.

“They used the hieroglyphics to record the history, events and whatever was important — they put it there,” she said. “Then I think, what we want to do in this period and why we want to show the public, and I think that the obelisk is very appropriate form for the roundabout.”

Artist Shan Shan Sheng, left, and Tim Snyder, dean of the JU College of Fine Arts & Humanities, stand before long cloth sheets show the designs molded into glass panels that will decorate the obelisk she designed for the traffic roundabout in front of the campus. | Jan Peters

Artist Shan Shan Sheng, left, and Tim Snyder, dean of the JU College of Fine Arts & Humanities, stand before long cloth sheets show the designs molded into glass panels that will decorate the obelisk she designed for the traffic roundabout in front of the campus. | Jan PetersShe wanted the bronze base to show the local history. Then the sheets of highly tempered glass above it, already formed and ready for assembly this summer, are based on the landscape of Florida in general, as well as Jacksonville and the ocean that borders it, Sheng said.

“If you look at the motif, you will see it’s like underwater, like coral reefs,” she said. “Then you will see kind of like trees and a waterfall. It’s mostly abstract, but you can clearly see a waterfall. Then gradually you see the blue sky and white clouds.”

Sheng has done public art since the early 1990s and held more than 30 one-woman shows in Europe, Asia and America. Her most recent “Open Wall” project was exhibited at the Urban Footprint pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo.

The $700,000 project is funded by various donors, the city and Jacksonville University, and will be gifted to the city upon completion some time in this summer, and dedicated in the fall, Snyder said. A City Council bill is requesting the transfer of $41,300 from the “Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Agency Trust Fund” for maintenance of the sculpture and landscaping.


author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.
author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.