There is poetry in Rodney Carroll’s descriptions of things he’s passionate about. But you won’t find his words in a book. Instead, you can experience them in his 30-60 feet tall three-dimensional sculptures that are erected in front of buildings, universities, and museums. His works, some of which take a year or more to complete, have mostly consisted of soaring interpretations of abstract concepts. But even those take on life when his explanation for what inspires him takes us on a trip from the conceptual to the romantic:
“I’m interested in the spatial relationship of elements and the negative space between them,” he says. “That gives me a notion of the wind coming through on the coast in a hurricane, forming the waves and shaping the sand dunes. And that also translates to the relationship two people may have, and the sense of how close they stand together and the energy between them and how that energy flows.”
You might have come across Carroll’s work around the country. There’s Couple in Arms in Norfolk, VA, Tango in Cary, North Carolina, or Meridian in Cleveland Heights, OH. Closer to home are the Three Muses and Apollo in Bethesda, Firebird in Baltimore, or Birth of the American Flag on Massachusetts Ave in DC. They’re large, expressive, poetic. You can’t help but be in awe of the vision behind them.
The manufacture of these massive steel structures is also impressive. Carroll explains that he doesn’t use a computer to create the sketches for his design. Instead, he works three-dimensionally, sculpting smaller models of his concept. Working with his own crew or a metal fabricating shop, he is inextricably involved in the whole process of cutting, welding, bolting, and erecting the pieces.
Not surprising given his talent, three years ago, Carroll was invited to create a sculpture for the lobby of The Hotel at the University of Maryland in College Park. Also, predictably was when he turned to the Chesapeake Bay as a muse for his design. Even though UMD’s mascot is the terrapin, Carroll knew there was a more powerful statement to be made. “Look at the salt marsh islands,” he said, “especially in Dorchester County around Blackwater that are the most fragile. These land elements and ecosystems are going on and going under because of climate change and sea-level rise. So, these salt marsh islands are, in a sense, temporary because in 30 years, they’ll be flooded and gone.”
So that’s what he made for The Hotel, a tribute to these tenuous marshlands. Called Blackwater, the three-dimensional 18×40 foot 2-panel curved wall sculpture is made of steel and copper. CODAworx, the art and design website, describes the piece as “brushed ripples in the stainless steel (which) represents the reflection of the light on the water while the copper-nickel salt marsh islands are shown as they rise and sink into the Chesapeake Bay.”
But Carroll explains the poetry behind the steel: “With the marshes, there are no two groupings that are the same. The way the water cuts through them with the tide running in and out… It’s all kind of magical how little mud bank with some grass stays there with the wind, the waves, and the tides and hurricanes, and all the fish, turtles, and birds lay their eggs there and grow. It’s a wonderful sense of the beginning of nature.”
After the installation of the panels, The Hotel expanded its design theme to encompass the idea of ecology and the Chesapeake Bay. The project also changed Carroll, who, besides residing and having a studio in Baltimore, bought a home close to the marshes that have become his inspiration.
“That’s pretty much why I came over into the Cambridge area,” says Carroll, “because Cambridge came down to the Dorchester and Dorchester has Blackwater, and they have all the salt marsh islands, more so than probably any other place on the Chesapeake Bay.” It didn’t hurt that he also found CK Lord, a local metal fabricating company that was able to work on his pieces after the fabricator that did his work for 30 years, closed their business.
But it’s the marshes that keep him coming back.
“I walk around,” says Carroll, “I boat around. I get the skiff, or I drive around looking at places. It’s almost to the point where I come down here, and I think I could just quit making my big sculptures. I could just spend my whole life making sculptures about salt marsh islands, instead.”
Although he probably won’t ever stop making the large-scale sculptures that are his trademark (he’s currently working on one for a town outside of Chicago), he’s now creating a series of smaller wall pieces based on the salt marsh islands. He’s also considering finding a place to display them. Not just for himself as an artist, but in the hope that it will be an inspiration to others.
“I feel that’s so important to draw attention to this ecology and this disappearing thing that we’re not going to see it anymore. I’m not a scientist or photographer documenting these, but drawing attention to the importance of them is a worthwhile endeavor. I feel good about the effort, and it makes me feel very good about my work too.”
For see more of Rodney Carroll’s work, check out his website here.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.