New York City sculptor Owen Morrel created “Compass Rose,” a monumental public art piece installed in Oklahoma City's Boathouse District. The $400,000 aluminum and stainless steel sculpture is a gift from Leadership Oklahoma City; major funding was provided by the Inasmuch Foundation. In an interview with The Oklahoman, Morrel discussed the inspiration for the piece, his passion for public art and the connection he draws between the sea — he grew up on Long Island in a house overlooking the water — and the plains. Questions and answers were edited.
Q: The compass rose is a recurring motif in navigation. How does that figure in the conception/creation of the “Compass Rose”?
A: My father was a small-town doctor, but he was a fisherman. He loved to fish, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Ernest Hemingway and he was a harpoonist, believe it or not, like Queequeg (from Herman Melville's novel “Moby-Dick”).
My father would take me out as a 5-year-old to fish with him, and we would go out all day. And I got sick every time. So I hated to fish. But what my father gave me was the sea. And what the sea gave me was a connection to the infinite.
I've always had a house on Long Island, even though I work in the city, and the sea has guided me. It inspires me. And then the interesting part of the summary here is that I moved from Long Island in my early 20s to Manhattan and the first thing I couldn't deal with is, I couldn't find the horizon.
And even though New York is on the sea, it's a port city, obviously, I couldn't find the horizon. It gave me a sense of freedom as a kid and a sense of strength and independence and I was never afraid, for some reason it helped me conquer whatever the fears are we have when we're young. And what I did when I went to Manhattan was climbed up to the tops of buildings to find the horizon line.
It's a literal freedom of seeing, and that spatial freedom was very liberating to me and inspiring. So I would say a lot of my work comes out of that and then it spins off into other forms and shapes. The “Compass Rose” is referent to the sea, and primitive navigation devices.
Q: Much of your work includes mirrored surfaces, which in one sense pulls the surroundings into the sculpture but on the other hand creates an illusion.
A: I use the mirrors very literally to collage the site, to bring the ambience of the site, the architecture, the landscaping and the people — the viewers — into the piece so that the piece basically is a pastiche of everything that is going on.
What's important to me is the experience that the viewer has in their own mind. I really want a very visceral — I really want a kinesthetic experience, a total mind-body thing. … It precipitates activity because it draws you into the piece and makes you want to walk around it. It precipitates thinking.