By Peter Holley | Texas Monthly
In Rockport, a celebrated artist is planning to install sculptures depicting the first contact between European explorers and the Karankawa. Is it a representation of a key moment in the area’s history, or a glorification of colonialism?
The most controversial statue in the bayside town of Rockport doesn’t stand outside a county courthouse or mark the location of a Civil War skirmish. It doesn’t honor a Confederate general or draw protesters armed with sledgehammers and ropes. Instead, the sculpture stands unfinished in Steve Russell’s cramped, paint-splattered studio, towering above easels, dusty furniture, and decades’ worth of artwork. Sheathed in body armor, the nine-foot-tall Spanish conquistador has a complexion the color of a rusty penny, his eyes peeking out beneath a bulky military helmet. The humanoid figure can seem, at first glance, like a sixteenth-century version of Frankenstein’s monster. “Everyone who has come in the door has had to try not to trip over themselves,” said Russell, the gravelly voiced 74-year-old artist behind the sculpture.
Russell is almost done with the conquistador, but his work is far from over. He plans to sculpt several more figures that will eventually be cast in bronze—a pirate, a Catholic religious figure clutching a cross, and, eventually, another set of works representing the region’s original Karankawa inhabitants. The tableau will then be installed on the shoreline of Little Bay, an inlet popular among boaters and anglers that sits beside one of Rockport’s busiest roadways. The Karankawa will be placed about sixty feet from the Europeans, arranged to suggest they’re watching the foreigners from the shore.
Dubbed “Cultural Interface,” the public art initiative is meant, in Russell’s telling, to capture the spirit of the first encounter between Europeans and the region’s Indigenous people. Assuming such a meeting occurred in the Rockport area, it would likely have taken place in the first half of the sixteenth century. (Far less likely: the notion that a Jack Sparrow–like pirate was in attendance; the heyday of such buccaneers wouldn’t arrive for another century, but Russell considers them a part of the region’s history.) Once finished, Russell said, the eight-hundred-pound bronze sculptures will be sturdy enough to remain standing for a thousand years. “I wanted them to be larger than life,” he explained, gazing at his creations during a recent studio tour. “I wanted them to remind people of how we all came to be here.”
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