Gulfport artist’s work for bicentennial inspired by Biloxi schooners

“This is, like, the hugest thing I’ve ever done.”

That would be the three-dimensional metal sculpture Gulfport artist Gail Hendrickson is creating.

The sculpture was commissioned by the Mississippi Sound Maritime Historical Foundation, which is donating it to the city of Gulfport, foundation president John Harral said. This is the second piece of public art the foundation is giving the city.

The sculpture is a two-mast schooner with dolphins and waves pacing it.

“The masts are 12 feet total,” Hendrickson said. “With the dolphins, it’s 23 feet long.” She’s planning to have the sculpture ready for the state’s bicentennial celebration at Centennial Park, March 31 and April 1.

“It’ll be ready for display at the bicentennial party,” Harral said. “Gail will have a demonstration of cutting the steel there.

“We’ve invited Gulfport’s first lady (Paula Hewes) to break a bottle of champagne on the boat to christen it.”

The foundation would like to see the sculpture have a permanent home on the grounds of the Mississippi Aquarium.

“We have two years in the interim, so there needs to be a temporary location,” Harral said. “One possible place is in front of the old library, and another is maybe Jones Park. As large as it is, it needs a large area. It’s the city’s decision, but those are two good locations.”

Hendrickson was inspired by the Biloxi schooners built of necessity at the turn of the 20th century on the Mississippi Coast. After a hurricane in the 1890s destroyed most of the Coast’s original fishing schooner fleet, local builders designed a schooner adapted to the shallower waters of the Sound, as well as bayous and lakes.

She showed two boat designs to the group, who “loved the schooner.”

“I asked them, ‘How big do you want it? Eight feet?’” she said. “They said, ‘How about 12?’” Henrickson used software to increase the scale, incorporating a bit of engineering into her work as an artist.

She also has taken the Coast’s weather into consideration. The masts will pivot on a 1-inch bolt, allowing them to move ever so slightly in normal winds .“The masts will fold down for a hurricane,” she said.

Right now, she’s cutting the steel pieces on sunny days. After all, this is an outdoor art project.

“This is almost like a dress pattern laid out on fabric,” she said. Indeed, sturdy plastic pattern pieces were laid on the steel to mark the lines. From there, Hendrickson cuts each piece of the sheet metal with an acetylene torch. The pieces are very heavy, so assistant Eric Wiseman helps with heavy lifting and keeping project supplies handy and in stock. A large bucket of water sits underneath in case any sparks flying from the torch should decide to go awry.

“Most people know the crabs I do,” she said, referring to her painted works featuring crabs, crawfish and other critters. “(Working at this scale) is a lot easier. There’s room for error. With a smaller piece, there’s no room for error.”

Hendrickson is adding a couple of touches sailors will appreciate.

“On the front, ‘Gulfport’ will be spelled out in nautical flags, and on the back, ‘One Coast’ will be spelled out in flags,” she said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1