Mark Aeling, a local sculptor and president of the ArtsXchange, has been a pioneering force in the St. Petersburg arts community, but his experience and expertise has extended both throughout and beyond the Tampa Bay area.
Aeling made several sculptures for What Dreams May Come, a critically acclaimed film that won an Oscar in 1999 for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for an Oscar for Set Decoration. He received his M.F.A. in sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis and owns and operates MGA Sculpture Studio, a fine art fabrication facility in the Warehouse Arts District. (Yes, MGA are his initials — the ‘G’ stands for Gerald; “It was my grandfather’s name,” he tells us.)
Recent studio projects include “Budding Vortex” at The Crescent Westshore, “Ripples of Life” at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa and “Vertical Hum” for Metro Development in Rocky Point — Aeling and his team created the 20-foot abstract metal sculpture with a movement created to represent the wind on water.
Aeling took some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for Alive Tampa Bay.
Would you tell us about a couple of firsts — when you first knew you wanted to become a sculptor and your first high-profile large-scale work?
I had sculptural aspirations at a very young age. I had my first experience of bliss at the age of 7 making a little playground out of clay. It was the first time that I had an “out of body” like experience and felt connected to something greater than myself. The first high-profile project I did was for the Seattle Opera when I was about 23 years old. I made a couple of pieces of sculptural scenery that were the focus of the production. My first large sculpture commission for MGA was a guilted eagle for a bank in St. Louis. It had a 14-foot wingspan and sat on top of the building. That was back in 1996.
What were some of the challenges involved with opening up the MGA studio?
You could say I began the foundation for MGA when I was in seventh grade and asked for a jigsaw, a drill, and some clamps for christmas. I got my first business license for MGA Sculpture Studio in 1996. I built it one job at a time, reinvesting a percentage of my profits back into the company to by equipment. I never took a business loan. I was given the gift of drive and vision at a very young age. I love the experience of creating; it is my religion, and my studio is a shrine. One of the greatest challenges I faced was keeping the doors open through the recession. 2010 was a tough year but 2015 is my best to date.
Please tell us how you got involved with the Warehouse Arts District’s ArtsXchange and how things are coming along with the facility?
I have had my studio in the same location in St. Pete for over 11 years now. Long before it was known as the Warehouse Arts District. As the arts community developed we recognized a need for an entity that would help individual artists expand their marketing potential and also create an entity that could interface with the municipality on their behalf. An individual artist’s voice is small but as a group we can be heard. As the success of the district grew it became clear that the same problem would evolve here as in many other areas throughout the country. Artists move into run down parts of town for big spaces with cheap rent. Their creative energy attracts attention. That attention brings with it development. That development drives up prices which drives out artists. I got involved because I wanted security and taking an active leadership role was a way to make that happen.
The ArtsXchange continues to move forward. At times it is a slow and plodding course but we have some very good people behind the project and there is truth in the mission. We have had a couple of minor setbacks working with the current construction climate in St. Pete. The success of our city in the past year or two, while wonderful, can create some challenges with costs and planning. We have had to make some adjustments in strategy but are now in a good position. Plan on seeing major progress on the ArtsXchange project as well as the Warehouse Arts District as a whole in the next year.
You don’t appear to be as flashy as some other artists. You use the word “we” on your website. You help other artists and talk about your studio as “a team player.” Do you intentionally like to keep things low-key and collaborative?
I once heard it said that it is best to be confident in your abilities and humble in your actions, a motto I try to live by. Large-scale sculpture is very labor intensive. I take full responsibility for everything my team creates and I guide the hands that help me but it is often a team effort and those that help feel more connected to the project if it is considered a “we” and not an “I” endeavor.
From Aurora, Colorado, to college in St. Louis — Florida is such quite a change of pace. What drew you here?
I was dissolving a business relationship in St. Louis and relocating my studio. I had located there after graduate school because the work was good but I had no binding connection. I was doing an installation on the east coast and took the opportunity to drive south and check out cities for a couple of weeks. I stumbled into Saint Pete and fell in love with the city. Don’t get me wrong I miss the mountains and the dry air very much but the beach is a good surrogate.
Aeling’s studio and current projects can be seen during Second Saturday Art Walk (every second Saturday of the month) MGA Sculpture Studio, LLC, 515 22nd St. S., Unit E, St. Petersburg; (727) 327-3473, mgasculpture.com.