Mastodons on the Loose: How a new public art project is connecting Muskegon to its history—and future

The mastodon in the Lakeshore Museum Center. Photo courtesy of the Lakeshore Museum Center

With the constant hum of construction happening in Muskegon, it can be easy to become absorbed by this quickly changing world of ours: the buildings being erected, the renovations, the debuting businesses. And while this melange of jackhammering and ribbon cuttings is very much about a growing economy, about the future, it’s also inevitably tied to the past, to a history spanning hundreds of millions of years.

Here, against a backdrop of emerging restaurants and coffee shops, is a landscape that tells the stories of ancient seas, of mile-thick ice that once covered our state, of long-extinct animals like mastodons and mammoths and giant beavers. It is a story of continental glaciers that encompassed the land we now call Michigan for more than a million years, of the sand and other sediments that, after centuries of being blown by the wind, have become the dunes framing our beaches.

These are the stories being told beneath our feet and on our horizons, in this expanse of sand and water that has drawn people to these shores for thousands of years, from indigenous communities arriving some 8,000 years ago—not long after the last glacier retreated from the region, leaving Lake Michigan in its place—to tourists now traversing Muskegon Lake on cruise ships.

But what does it mean to truly connect to this world that existed thousands, or even millions, of years ago? How do we comprehend this historical land—and why does it matter that we do?

‘Mastodons on the Loose’

A new public art project, “Mastodons on the Loose,” is both seriously and playfully answering these questions—with a sculpture of an adult mastodon emerging from the Lakeshore Museum Center and a series of smaller sculptures of baby mastodons located at sites throughout downtown Muskegon. The sculpture of the large mastodon is slated to be installed in September, and at least 13 mini-mastodons are expected to be placed this summer.

The mastodon is a distant relative of today’s elephant that, along with woolly mammoths, giant beavers, and other massive animals, roamed throughout Michigan, including in Muskegon, about 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. It sported a pair of tusks as long as 16 feet, stood between seven and nine feet tall, and weighed somewhere around six tons. Climate change and overhunting by humans drove it into extinction.

Judy Hayner, who is leading the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative, at the unveiling of the “All My Relations” sculpture in downtown Muskegon this past fall. Photo by Anna Gustafson

“The mastodon is our state fossil—who knew that?” said Judy Hayner, the recently retired director of the Muskegon Museum of Art who is spearheading efforts to bring the mastodon sculptures to the city. “There’s evidence of mastodons in Michigan that are fairly prolific. The mastodon fossils in the Lakeshore Museum were discovered in Rothbury. Mastodon bones were found in Muskegon in 1930; those wound up at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It’s that history that’s so interesting and gives us the opportunity to do something very fun—to do something very attention getting.”

The coming mastodon sculptures will certainly be attention getting: the large, adult-sized mastodon will look like it’s “breaking out of the basement,” Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler said. The little mastodons will be located at sites around downtown, including the Heritage Museum, the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Century Club, the Union Depot, the Farmers Market, Hackley Park, and the L.C. Walker Arena, among other venues.

“It’s going to be whimsical,” Soler said. “The mastodon is coming out of the building to look for their babies. It’s a piece of art that kids and adults can interact with. They can sit on it to have their pictures taken. We want it to be very interactive. It fits in with what we’re trying to do with the museum and trying to move our image into a playful place.”

Sculpted by Gillie and Marc Schattner, a wife and husband duo from Australia who have exhibited internationally and whom the New York Times called “the most successful and prolific creators of public art in New York’s history,” the mastodons are the first project from the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative. Launched in July 2018 and led by Hayner, the initiative aims to add up to 10 new significant works of art to the city of Muskegon; it operates under the auspices of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in collaboration with the Downtown Arts Committee.

An image from a Muskegon City Public Art Initiative flyer depicting what the “Mastodons on the Loose” sculpture will look like.

Philanthropist Patrick O’Leary, a former Muskegonite who now lives in Arizona, is donating up to $25,000 for each of the 10 projects. The mastodon project has a total price tag of $115,000 for the large sculpture and $1,500 per mini-mastodon; the initiative has so far fundraised about 84 percent of its goal. Thirteen mini-mastodons have been secured, and Hayner said they’re hoping to fund a couple more. Donations to the project are made through the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

‘We didn’t invent this earth’: How the mastodon project connects us to history

For those behind the mastodon project, the permanent installation is slated to have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the community on multiple levels: it’s a draw for residents and tourists alike, it expands the city’s already existing public art landscape, it encourages individuals to explore downtown Muskegon with the mini-mastodons, and it connects history to our present—and future.

“It’s an opportunity for people to experience that we didn’t invent this earth,” Hayner said. “The more we open ourselves to the reality and history of this planet, the better. It’s good to continually remind ourselves that we’re one little chapter of this story, and there were chapters before that were fascinating and meaningful. We have information on the impact of global warming at other times; we need to learn a little more from that.”

Soler too emphasized the importance of connecting the public to lessons of the past—and what we’ve lost to extinction.

“In our prehistoric exhibit, “From the Depths of Time,” we show the scale of what roamed the earth, swam in the waters, or flew in the air; it’s mind-boggling to me,” Soler said. “When people walk through that and realize dragonflies were two-and-a-half-feet big and lizards were the size of alligators, you put into perspective that the mastodon was pretty small for that time period. Everything was big—the beavers were huge.”

“That’s when people start to have an aha moment that all of that is extinct,” Soler continued. “We still have some gopher tortoises; we still have sturgeon in this area. Those are the last remnants of prehistoric times that have made it, and what if those go extinct? We want to have those conversations and get people thinking.”

The “Muskegon, Together Rising” sculpture by Richard Hunt is one of numerous public art pieces in the city. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The transformative role of public art in the life of Muskegon

From art advocates and museum directors to businesses and government officials, leaders in Muskegon have long focused on bringing public art to the region—there’s close to 40 public art works in the city, from sculptures to murals and more. [You can see a map of the public art in Muskegon by clicking here.]

“Muskegon already has a significant public art collection; because we live with it and it’s part of our lives, people may not realize it,” Hayner said.

“I want Muskegon to be known for its support of the arts,” she continued. “I think our history shows support of the arts. When you think of this scrappy little town, when you think of Muskegon and even the metro Muskegon area, it’s not big. But what do we have that makes us unique? There’s no city on the lakeshore, from New Buffalo to the bridge, that has what we have. We have a symphony, a civic theater, a nationally accredited art museum, the library, historic museums. All of those things in this pretty small area is a remarkable thing. It is what truly makes Muskegon unique, and I think the public art collection is one more thing to add to that.”

This emphasis on the arts—and specifically public art—is for good reason. Public art is directly tied to economic development: it invites both residents and tourists alike to explore Muskegon. It draws people to museums, cultural venues and businesses. And it starts conversations—about history, about art, about Muskegon itself.

“I’ve always felt Muskegon has a collection of real gems that need to be connected somehow: the Frauenthal, Bluffton [the Muskegon neighborhood, where the Actors’ Colony was located and where silent movie star Buster Keaton vacationed], Pere Marquette, the museums—the list is endless,” said Patrick O’Leary, who lived in Muskegon while working for the SPX Corporation from 1996 to 2001, when the company relocated to North Carolina. “I think public art is one way to connect them all.”

Those championing public art in the city note that, as with Muskegon’s natural surroundings, it makes beauty accessible to everyone; it connects us all to this land, to its stories and its history and its communities, those long gone and those still persevering. Public art has no barriers to entry; it not only allows anyone to see it, it encourages that. When you get down to it, that is what public art is all about: making culture accessible to everyone, inviting collaboration and important social criticism, building a city for us all.

The “All My Relations” sculpture by Jason Quigno in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

“We should be thinking about trying to create more art, more parks, more trees,” O’Leary said of society in general. “Public art is an uplifting part of everyday life; it’s free for the public. It inspires people to be proud of their environment.”

And it’s not just supporters of “Mastodons on the Loose” saying this: study after study shows a relationship between public art and economic growth, from major meccas like New York City and Los Angeles to smaller cities undergoing economic revitalization, like Muskegon.

Public art has been tied to creating a sense of belonging: absolutely anyone is welcome to access public art; you don’t have to be a wealthy collector to see fine art. (The Muskegon Museum of Art too focuses on this; it offers free admission to the museum every Thursday evening.)  And it connects us to other cultures, to both the people who walked this land long before us—and to those who live here now. The “All My Relations” sculpture in downtown Muskegon, for example, was made by Anishinaabe artist Jason Quigno, and the piece focuses on respecting, and connecting with, the spirit, stories and values of the Anishinaabe, the indigenous people of the Great Lakes who migrated west to Michigan from North America’s eastern shores as early as the first century.

Public art is simultaneously a simple and complex way to say: this is who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be. Plus, it can just be a whole lot of fun.

“As you think about creating a place where people want to be—and want to live, not just work, there’s no doubt in my mind you have to think about public art,” said O’Leary, who has long financially supported art in Muskegon, including the “All My Relations” sculpture. “Public art creates an environment where people don’t just want to work, but want to live.”

In other words, O’Leary said, public art is part of a mission to draw people here, not solely for a paycheck but to experience life as a whole.

“If you look at Muskegon in the last 50 years, we’ve had lots and lots of attractive things happening, but, until now, we haven’t been able to create an environment that says, ‘We’re going to Muskegon for the weekend,’” O’Leary said. “We’re on the cusp of that, and I feel public art is an important ingredient. It’s one way to entice people to go to all of the different places, to not just see the art but see the interesting places and history in Muskegon.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

One thought on “Mastodons on the Loose: How a new public art project is connecting Muskegon to its history—and future

  • February 20, 2019 at 10:04 pm
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    Thank you for that beautiful article on our new art initiative in Muskegon. I’ve lived here all but fifteen years of my life and have been very pleased that a 40,000 person town could have so much culture for everybody to enjoy. Also thanks for reminding us that giving to things like these out lasts our own lives and carries us on into the future.

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