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Imposing owls may soon nest near Butterfly Bridge

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

You may soon notice two pairs of orange, warm glowing orbs peeking over the new Butterfly Bridge downtown after it is complete, at least if the Arts Commission approves two gigantic owls to greet Austinites and tourists.

The New American Public Art studio presented the two nocturnal art sculptures to the Art in Public Places Panel on Monday. The studio and other engineering and art partners brainstormed two steel sculptures costing an estimated $300,000 to symbolize Austin’s blend of tech-forward accomplishments and natural landscapes.

The artwork would be placed near the end of the bridge on the east side Shoal Creek Trail across the bridge from the new Central Library, which is set to open on Oct. 28.

“The Second Street has this beautiful beam of rivers and streams and that’s sort of juxtaposing with the new library,” said Dan Sternof Beyer, creative director of New American Public Art. “We wanted to choose a symbol that combined these, and an owl was a beautiful way of doing that, a symbol of knowledge and also this apex predator in the rivers and streams theme.”

Each owl will sit on top of a boulder on a circular bench with an electrical base that lights up both the boulders and the owls’ eerie eyes. The base of the bench to the top of the owl’s head is 10 feet tall and the base is 6 feet wide. New American Public Art designer Bevan Weissman said the base, and the rest of the sculpture, is made of panels that can be taken apart to easily clean and repair the owls if necessary.

They are also made out of dark and light bands of layered aluminum and industrial plastics that will not weather, and here is another feature: Their heads rotate in sync at the shoulder by maneuvering a circuit. Weissman said the heads rotate all the way around and would create something of an “exorcist feel.” Beyer said the acrylic eyes backlit by a yellow warm light also make the owls a little more intriguing.

“When you’re walking around it, it’s always kind of looking at you even if it’s not looking at you straight,” Beyer said. “That’d be that sort of the Mona Lisa effect which adds to kind of the unease and creepiness.”

Panel member Ilse Frank said she was worried the trees planned for the area near the owls may grow branches and block views of the birds from afar.

“The Second Street trees are probably planted at a 5-inch caliper, so I know that there’s been issues with what we call limbing up, which is where the bottom branch lies,” Frank said. “There’s going to be a tree blocking your owl.”

Beyer said an estimated installation date would come in early April if the owls are approved by the Arts Commission. The panel voted unanimously to pass them along to the commission for its next meeting Aug. 21 with the recommendation by Frank to have the trees either placed elsewhere or for different types of trees to be planted.

This story has been corrected to fix typos and to make a correction. The owls will be on the east, not west, side of the bridge, as was originally reported. Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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