Artist Stephen Oliver’s sculpture, “Best Kept Secret,” is the winner of the Gulfport Merchants Association’s competition for a work of public art to be displayed adjacent to the Gulfport Casino.
GULFPORT – Artist Stephen Oliver recently was selected as the winner of the Gulfport Merchants Association’s competition for a work of public art adjacent to the Gulfport Casino.
Oliver’s sculpture proposal, titled “Best Kept Secret,” reflects on Gulfport’s history and the spirits of diversity and creativity that characterize the city today according to a press release.
“It also celebrates the openness of a once-segregated community that continues to grow to accept everyone,” Oliver said in the press release.
The sculpture will be situated adjacent to the Gulfport Casino, an Art Deco styled public hall that is a Gulfport icon and has served as a community gathering place since the turn of the century.
The casino was recently approved for addition to the list of National Historic Landmarks.
Oliver’s sculpture will consist of a metal boat in a raised position at eye level so that visitors can read the poetry cut into its port and starboard sides. The lines will read “To cross the gulf be our port of call leaving a wake of peace and love for all" and “All hands together joined to row make rainbows of gauntlet as they go."
The sculpture also incorporates a keyhole in the stern of the boat, through which one can view a rainbow of painted colors and reflecting colored glass elements on the interior. The stern of the boat is also shaped like the façade of the casino and serves as a palette for a painting of “the colored people’s dance pavilion” to reflect how the community has evolved to become an inclusive one since the days of segregation.
Oliver found an image of the old pavilion on the Gulfport Historical Society’s website. The boat’s tall mast-like weathervane, situated beside the boat, reflects the themes of peace and love in the poetry cut into the boat’s hull and incorporates sculptural elements intended to resemble Gulfport's initials “G-P.”
Oliver is known by many Gulfport locals and visitors as the designer and vendor of the graphic “Give Peace” shirts and other garments he sells at Gulfport’s Tuesday Fresh Market. He has a background in architecture and furniture design, and has worked with numerous museums and artists in coordinating and designing projects, residencies, exhibitions and public art as well as making his own art.
Oliver has a degree in architecture from New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Furniture Design from Rhode Island School of Design. He lives part of the year in
Maine. His family has local roots in St. Petersburg, where his father and other family members still live. His grandfather, Henry Oliver Sr., was a prolific builder whose wife ran their small produce market in St. Petersburg. “Grandpa Oliver” also helped lay the brick streets of Gulfport during a building boom that started in 1923 and ended in the Great Depression.
Oliver expects to begin work on the sculpture immediately, with final installation and dedication ceremony planned for this summer. The Gulfport Merchants Association selected Oliver’s work after a national call for artists that resulted in more than a dozen entries. Proceeds from Gecko Fest and other events sponsored by the GMA are funding the public art commission.