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Artist’s face of America on National Mall will be a passing fancy

An aerial view from the Washington Monument of Cuban American artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s project “Out of Many, One.” The six-acre portrait project made of top soil, sand and gravel is open for walking on October 4. (Keith Lane/McClatchy)
An aerial view from the Washington Monument of Cuban American artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s project “Out of Many, One.” The six-acre portrait project made of top soil, sand and gravel is open for walking on October 4. (Keith Lane/McClatchy) McClatchy

The National Mall is getting a new look – temporarily.

On a six-acre tract near the World War II Memorial, alongside the Reflecting Pool, there is a public art project that at ground level appears to be swirls of alternating lines of dirt and sand with a few patches of gravel.

But from above – say, from the top of the Washington Monument – visitors can see that it is actually the face of a young man.

“It’s a unique project for us in the National Park Service,” Robert Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said at Wednesday’s media unveiling of the project. “This is iconic public space, so I thought, ‘What better place to have public art?’”

The audacious project is the brainchild of Kim Sajet, the new director of the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which has many museums that line the National Mall.

Sajet came up with the idea earlier this year and asked the Park Service for permission. “When they said yes, we said, ‘Really?’” she told reporters. “It was something kind of fun for the country.”

The artwork, which will be open to the public from Saturday until Oct. 31, adds a new element to the Mall, the stretch of green space, museums and memorials from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, known as “the nation’s front lawn.”

“This is the perfect environment of science and art coming together,” she said. “This is a beautiful piece of art not just for what it looks like, but what it stands for.”

“E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of Many, One,” is the name of the landscape artwork, designed to last only a month, by Cuban American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. The title, which is the nation’s motto and is found on the Great Seal of the United States, is a tribute to the diverse face of American youth. The artist photographed 30 men of all races, ages 18-25, and created a composite face that is seen partially, at an angle, with only one eye peering out, always watching, no matter the perspective.

“It took me a month and a half to get it right,” said Rodriguez-Gerada. “It’s always looking at you.”

He created the face by merging elements of his 30 subjects, then did a hand etching of the portrait. He employed sophisticated digital and satellite technology to create 10,000 digital points that, used with satellite technology, pinpoint the placement of the 10,000 wooden pegs that were the framework for the soil, sand and gravel.

Satellites were an essential component to get the picture right. The portrait in digital format used parallel lines that corresponded to satellite navigation receivers on the ground. Rodriguez-Gerada had what amounted to digital paintbrushes, sticks with GPS displays that determined the exact placement of the materials.

The “facescape,” as he calls his work, used 2,500 tons of sand, 800 tons of topsoil, and eight miles of string, all donated by private companies, as was the transportation of the materials and the installation of the artwork.

From start to finish, the work took six months, with the actual installation only taking a few weeks. Key to the work is seeing different things from different angles, with the emergence of a face only visible from a distance.

“The lines become shadows,” said Rodriguez-Gerada. “It’s like a zen garden.”

And, like a garden, he wants the public to walk in his creation. “You get another sense of it,” he said. Wind and rain won’t disturb it, he added.

Asked if the portrait was meant to be Latino because of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and his own background, Rodriguez-Gerada said he was not creating a Latino face and his connection to the project was “serendipity.”

“It’s one of hundreds of millions of faces that America has,” he said. “They’re all us.”

Born in Cuba, which he left at age 4, and raised in New Jersey among different ethnic groups, Rodriguez-Gerada said, “This piece also has a little bit of me in it.”

It doesn’t bother him that the artwork will only exist a short time, to be covered again with grass.

“A lot of my work is ephemeral,” he said. “I want to talk about living in the moment.”

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