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Parks & Public Spaces

The Nature of Art

by Sarah Rufca Nielsen    August 31, 2020

There’s something new, interesting and unexpected arriving to the southwest corner of Market Square Park this season. Between the lawn and the dog run, visitors will encounter winding, organic forms with a surface that resembles a frozen river. Surrounding the raised forms, a new kid-safe surface also features organic shapes and patterns of its own, designed to engage visitors of all ages.

This is Meander, a new work of public art created specifically for this historic site by local artist and landscape architect Falon Mihalic. It’s an homage to Buffalo Bayou, which itself meanders its way through Houston; the crux of our city’s origin story and now a valued slice of nature that coexists alongside Downtown’s glass and steel skyline. It’s a fitting piece from the inventive mind of Mihalic, who followed her own meandering path to both Houston and her career as a hybrid artist and landscape architect. Raised in Pensacola on the Florida Gulf Coast, Mihalic credits her childhood explorations of the beautiful coastal habitats as formative to her artistic vision. “Nature is my muse,” she says.

“I grew up as a free-range kid—I went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and was exposed to these beautiful beaches and forests,” says Mihalic. “My mom is an herbalist and a gardener and a painter, and I grew up climbing trees and loving being outside and being a daydreamer. My childhood consisted of me building my own forts and nooks in trees where I could exist all day, and that’s what my studio is now—it’s my place to dream.”

Mihalic graduated from a small, liberal-arts college in Florida with a degree in natural sciences—think chemistry and entomology—as well as a desire not to spend the rest of her career looking through a microscope. She didn’t even know what a landscape architect was until she stumbled upon the degree description while searching for grad school programs.

“I had taken one class on the built environment, and it just blew my world thinking about sustainable development. When I found the description for landscape architecture, it was a perfect fit – bringing ‘bringing nature to the built environment.’ That’s what I wanted to do!” One catch: to apply to the program, she had to have a portfolio—and Mihalic had never even taken an undergraduate art class. She started painting watercolors on the floor of her apartment and discovered a love of color and of painting as an art form. It would be several more years before Mihalic would think of herself as an artist, but from this point on, painting would be one of her life’s central passions.

Mihalic went on to earn a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, and after graduating she worked at the firm of Mikyoung Kim, a renowned landscape architect who also produces site-specific environmental art. Though inspired by the work, Mihalic knew she wanted to open her own studio with a similar mix of projects, and on a whim, almost, decided to open it in Houston.

“Houston was geographically triangulated between my partner’s family and my family, and I’d moved around so much that we were like, ‘Let’s try it.’ So we arrived as visitors and we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Houston is better than I had imagined. It’s a good place to be a small business owner.”

Since opening Falon Land Studio in 2013, Mihalic has successfully balanced the two sides of her career. To an outsider, the landscape architect portion of her practice might seem unrelated to her work as an artist—she takes on traditional landscaping projects like public spaces, plazas, gardens and landscape design for affordable housing. But Mihalic says her experience as an architect and her perspective as an artist inform everything she does.

“What I like about it is it helps bring precision to the craft that I create. For this project in Market Square Park, I have a structural engineer consultant and components fabricated by various people as well as by me. Concrete foundation, metal footing, all of that has to layer on top of each other. I don’t know how I’d manage that without some type of architecture or construction background,” says Mihalic. “From the other direction, being an artist means viewing the world from a particular lens. It’s our job to see things a certain way, to have that vision and have a creative solution to bring together these different elements, be they social, cultural, or abstract. ... It’s been my business strategy to not get caught up in the conversation of ‘Is this landscape architecture or is it art?’”

Mihalic occasionally works with natural materials as an artistic medium—such as when she centered live plants within a large semi-circular sculpture covered in AstroTurf that doubled as unconventional seating, designed for athleisure brand Outdoor Voices’ new Houston store. But generally, she takes nature as a broader form of inspiration and then creates using a broad range of materials that will best help her execute her vision.

“Other artists put their medium first—they are a metal artist or a ceramicist, and they come from the perspective of, ‘What are the possibilities inherent in this clay?’ My work is more about the experience and the place,” she says.

That could mean a mix of blue mirrored acrylic pieces and acrylic paint combined to make Rain, a three-dimensional wall installation for a Downtown office building. It could be high-density foam, cut into simple shapes and covered in fabric for Playshapes, a temporary art installation designed to encourage kids to build and create their own temporary works along Houston’s East End Promenade. Or it could be simple birch outfitted with over 2,400 LED lights built into an undulating white structure that appears to rise organically out of Emancipation Park, emitting a soothing glow that changes color based on the temperature, as in her Climate Pulse.

For Meander, the Market Square Park installation, Mihalic has turned to poured resin in cast concrete to create elevated, serpentine shapes that mimic the bayou’s physical form and route, giving visitors a new view of this familiar body of water.

“It’s meant to be a space kids can crawl around, they can use it as a balance beam, they can play the ground is lava, and there’s a fun, concentric pattern around the play pieces that are laid out to interact with, so kids might discover they can hop between the ground elements,” says Mihalic. “One piece is the perfect bench height, so I’m hoping it’s embraced by families and anyone going to events at the park because it has a prime view of the lawn. And when someone’s just walking through the park and having an encounter, the resin top is very beautiful, it shines and has this pattern that looks like frozen water, that’s the natural element to it. It’s like taking a canvas and turning it into a frozen painting on top of a sculpture.”

Mihalic hopes that this new public art will not only create visual interest but also remind Houstonians of the role the park has played in Houston’s history. The connection to the bayou is inspired by Allen’s Landing, the site where the city was founded, and the only straight lines that carve through Meander reference the outline of the original City Hall, which once sat in the same plot as the park. It’s a beautiful way for Houstonians present and future to reflect on the importance of the past and appreciate the role of nature in our city. Where better to do that than in Downtown’s most historic park?

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