Dixie Friend Gay’s Majestic Monsters of Mueller
The artist's "Arachnophillia," "Lake Nessy" and "Ocho" sculptures are big friendly giants
On a Sunday morning walking tour of the Mueller neighborhood, pedestrians can traverse wild parks, pick up fresh vegetables from the farmers market and scope out creative urban dwellings arranged in nearly identical rows. A roughly 3-mile loop encircles the whole community, with nature-inspired art installations acting as anchor points for anyone looking to activate their sense of wonder.
Artist Dixie Friend Gay works in series, but the placement of her three Mueller sculptures are, to her, a coincidence courtesy of Austin urban planners. Around 20 years ago, when the Mueller neighborhood was undergoing its initial renovation, the city short-listed Friend’s proposal for a public art installation along I-35: a herd of pink buffalo honoring the paved-over migratory corridor. Mags Harries and Lajos Héder ultimately won the grant for their blue, solar-energy-converting “SunFlowers,” but the city kept Friend’s file.
When the budget for a smaller project opened up, Friend returned to Austin with her portfolio and workshopped a different idea. After a considerable development period to ensure the piece would fit the location, Friend settled on a giant steel spider, now perched over a walking path in Mueller’s Southwest Greenway. From across the pond, “Arachnophillia” emerges from a thicket of trees with one friendly appendage reaching forward—or stomping, for the arachnophobic. Towering at an impressive 23 by 31 feet, the structure is meant to oxidize, taking on an industrial red glow over time.
“It’s about the honesty of the materials of corten and stainless steel and how it sits in the environment,” says Friend, noting how the park has grown wildly around the spider since its installation in 2008. A helpful plaque—one of many throughout the park—acquaints visitors with Texas spiders.
Friend’s second Mueller work, “Lake Nessy,” rises from the ground outside the children’s museum, Thinkery. Installed in 2014, the mosaic serpentine monster is the most cheerful of the three sculptures: Countless glistening glass and ceramic tiles, many of which were hand-fired in Friend’s studio, give the creature a sea-slicked look in the sun. Clusters of smaller sea life gather around Nessy’s curves. An inquisitive walk around her becomes as interactive as climbing on her back, which children are constantly clamoring to try.
Practical concerns influenced much of Nessy’s design, recognized in 2016 by Americans for the Arts. For cost-efficiency, engineers pushed Friend toward a straighter neck than she originally designed, and the variations in tile patterns are made to hide seams. During Friend’s last visit to Austin, she noticed that a change to Nessy’s environment suddenly made her much more accessible. The city had installed a walkway approaching the sculpture from the front, rather than from the sides.
“It was fun to see her from a different perspective,” Friend says, “and that comes about through the urban planners.
Friend’s most recent installment was an even greater feat of collaborative engineering. “Ocho,” a color-shifting octopus, drapes over a utility building in Jessie Andrews Park, named for the first female graduate and professor at the University of Texas. Inspired by movie monsters of the ’50s and ’60s, the design honors the block of production companies across the street, including an internet favorite, Rooster Teeth. Much like the abdomen of “Arachnophillia” and the mirrored scales of “Lake Nessy,” the entire surface of the octopus reflects sunlight, changing from teal to deep purple and mimicking the real sea creature. This sculpture, Friend says, took much longer than expected, but she thanks her Austin collaborators—Blue Genie Art Industries, Lars Stanley and Catellus—for working through the pandemic.
Friend’s focus on ecosystems and preservation is a direct remnant of her upbringing on a ranch in Oklahoma, 30 miles from the nearest town. The isolated setting stoked an interest in nature and altered states of consciousness. The weather shaped each day, and her moods. Now in Houston, Friend says, “I consciously make the effort to get outside at sunrise and at sunset so I can see that magic light, so I can see things … in a different way, to pause, and it can be meditative.”
Nature even guides how she travels. The artist has built itineraries around the oldest trees she could find throughout the United States and Europe. “You can get there with yoga and breathing,” Friend says of the reflective mental state, “and you can get there with psychedelics. For me … I get there in nature.” Walking between the three Mueller sculptures, it’s easy to find that quality of artist-guided meditation: A journey through Mueller’s commercial, residential and wild side invites Austinites to tour their city, experience nature in a novel way and ruminate on how a city can collaborate with its inhabitants even as it continues to grow.