On The National Mall, An American Portrait In Sand And Soil

Oct 12, 2014
Originally published on October 12, 2014 1:14 pm

Last month on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., trucks pulled up bearing thousands of tons of dark topsoil and sand. Volunteers arrived with shovels and rakes. Following an artist's instructions and guided by satellite coordinates, they laid out a design across 6 acres to create a work commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, standing at the perimeter of the portrait, it looks like a field under construction. The only clue that something more complex is going on is that the soil is laid out in carefully contoured lines — so when it's viewed from way up on high, you see the image of a face.

A tourist visiting from Ohio walks by. Jim Mahoney hasn't heard about the piece, and would never have guessed it was a face by looking at it from ground level.

"The easy answer would be, 'Well, that doesn't make sense,'" he says, but "I guess I'm a little more open minded to think symbolism really matters. It's not what it is, it's what it means."

Eva Folkert of Michigan was excited to actually walk on the sand after seeing large-scale images of the piece. "You create art yourself in your mind as you try to put these singular pieces together to make one whole thing," she says. "And maybe that's part of the concept too, right?"

Out Of Many, One is the name of the piece. Although the artist behind the work, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, has done similar projects in Europe, this is his first in the United States.

Rodríguez-Gerada moved to the U.S. from Cuba at the age of 4, and was raised in New Jersey. He grew up in with an ethnically diverse group of friends, which he says has had a lasting impact on him. He wanted the portrait to represent America, so the face on the Mall blends photos he took of young men from many racial backgrounds.

After a few early trips to the site, Rodríguez-Gerada realized the National Mall is on a flight path. A happy coincidence, that's part of what makes the piece so unique — it can be appreciated from so many vantage points.

"It's designed to be viewed here, now, walking through it, from the Monument, from the planes flying out of National," Rodríguez-Gerada says.

If you're not in a plane, the one reliable way to see this portrait in its entirety is from the top of the Washington Monument.

Up on the observation deck, people look out over the city in all four directions.
Many are surprised to find an enormous face peering back at them, where normally there is only grass.

It's now been a little more than a week since the the portrait made its debut. Despite several good rains, the edges of the face have stood up to the elements — with a little help from volunteers who come by to rake the sand back into place.

But the work, by design, will disappear. At the end of this month, it will be plowed under and reseeded with grass, preserved only in photographs and memories.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last month on the National Mall here in Washington, trucks pulled up bearing thousands of tons of dark topsoil and sand. Volunteers arrived with shovels and rakes. Following an artist's instructions and guided by satellite coordinates, they laid out a design across six acres to create a work commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

We're standing now at the perimeter of the portrait, which looks like a field under construction. The only clue that something more complex is going on is that the soil is laid out in carefully contoured lines, so that when it's viewed from way up on high, you see the image of a face. It's called "Out Of Many, One," e pluribus unum. A tourist visiting from Ohio walks by. Jim Mahoney has not heard about the piece and would never have guessed it was a face by looking at it from ground level.

What do you think of the idea of doing a portrait that can really only be effectively seen in its entirety from an airplane, on the top of the Washington Monument or a helicopter or something?

JIM MAHONEY: Yeah, the easy answer would be, well, that doesn't make sense; you can't see it; you're down here - all of those things. But I guess I'm a little more open-minded to think symbolism really matters. It's not what it is. It's what it means.

SHAPIRO: This work of art has attracted worldwide attention. Eva Folkert of Michigan was excited to actually walk on the sand after seeing the large-scale images.

EVA FOLKERT: So you create art yourself in your mind as you try to put these singular pieces together to make one whole thing. And maybe that's part of the concept, too, right? Out of many, one.

SHAPIRO: Although the artist behind this work has done similar projects in Europe, this is first in the United States. He met us down on the Mall.

JORGE RODRIGUEZ GERADA: My name is Jorge Rodriguez Gerada, and I'm an artist that grew up in New Jersey. I came over when I was 4 years old from Cuba.

SHAPIRO: Rodriguez Gerada grew up with an ethnically diverse group of friends, which he says had a lasting impact on him. He wanted the portrait to represent America, so the face on the Mall blends photos he took of young men from many racial background. While we talk, airplanes fly low overhead, interrupting our conversation.

Did you know when you built this that you would be in a flight path and the people would be able to see it from the airplanes?

RODRIGUEZ GERADA: Early on, yes. Yes, by coming to the site a couple times, we realized that this happens a lot.

SHAPIRO: That's kind of a happy coincidence.

RODRIGUEZ GERADA: Yes. Yes.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask about the intended audience for this because I imagine a lot of portrait artists would say, don't look at an image of my work online; you have to go see it in person. But in some ways, it feels like this is a work that is designed to be viewed remotely rather than in person.

RODRIGUEZ GERADA: The piece is designed to be viewed in different ways. It's designed to be viewed here, now walking through it, from the Monument, from the planes flying out of National. And that really just talks about how, in contemporary culture, the way we view things is super varied.

SHAPIRO: But I like this idea that viewing a digital image of it from halfway around the world is not, in some way, a lesser version than seeing it in person, the way that looking at a photo of the "Mona Lisa" might be a lesser version of seeing it at the Louvre.

RODRIGUEZ GERADA: Right, it's very different. If you put the "Mona Lisa" in the middle of the National Mall and take a photograph from space, I don't think you're going to find...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

RODRIGUEZ GERADA: So, you know, I think - you know, I think everything that came together, like the use of the satellite, GPS technology, the amount of material, the scale, the location - all those things - how you view it - it all really blends to make this amazing moment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Come on in.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

If you're in Washington, there is one reliable way to see this portrait in its entirety.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: So welcome, everyone, to the Washington Monument. Our trip to the top is going to take about 70 seconds or so.

SHAPIRO: On the observation deck of the Washington Monument, people look out over the city in all four directions. And many of them are surprised to find an enormous face peering back at them where normally there's only grass.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, look at the face. Do you see the face in the cornfield or whatever that is?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Oh, my goodness. That's interesting.

SHAPIRO: It's now been a little bit more than a week since the portrait made its debut. Despite several good rains, the edges of the face have stood up to the elements, with a little help from volunteers who come by to rake the sand back into place. But the work, by design, will disappear. At the end of this month, it will be plowed under, and the land will be reseeded with grass, the work of art preserved in photographs and memories. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.