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'Winter Landscape' will gradually come alive in Pittsburgh's Market Square

| Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, 9:49 p.m.
Artist Jennifer Wen Ma stands in her installation, 'A Winter Landscape Cradling Bits of Sparkle' for the Market Square Public Art Program on Tuesday Downtown in Market Square.  The installation will run from Feb. 19 through April 12.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Artist Jennifer Wen Ma stands in her installation, 'A Winter Landscape Cradling Bits of Sparkle' for the Market Square Public Art Program on Tuesday Downtown in Market Square. The installation will run from Feb. 19 through April 12.

A forest grows in Downtown Pittsburgh.

A very small forest in Market Square — not leafy green yet, but the color of black Chinese ink.

“A Winter Landscape: Cradling Bits of Sparkle” by artist Jennifer Wen Ma, is the second major installation in the Market Square Public Art Program. It will fill the center of Market Square through April 12, beginning Feb. 19 when the barriers come down and the public can walk through it.

Ma is a figure of international renown in contemporary art, perhaps best-known for her work on the creative team who designed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympics. She led the design of its visual and special effects, and won an Emmy for the U.S. broadcast.

On Feb. 17, it wasn't quite finished. A pile of mulch yet to be distributed seemed to attract as much attention as the exhibit itself — which is as subtle as a small forest can be at this early stage. This will change slowly, as life returns incrementally to the dormant, wintry, windswept plaza of Market Square. As the weather changes, “A Winter Landscape” will gradually come alive.

“We have to go through winter to have spring,” Ma said.

At first, it's “this black, undulating landscape,” she said. Visitors take a winding path through several stands of black trees, starting with bamboo. “It creates a kind of canopy over you — almost seclusion. Then you walk through cascading willows and cherry trees that will start to blossom eventually, I promise.”

There are evergreens, “a scholar's perch,” mist.

“Along the way, you'll discover glass gems, sparkling. Illuminated at night,” Ma said. “From this black landscape, colors will break out — peach, pink, every week, something different.”

The Beijing-born Ma, who moved to the United States in 1986, works in many media, often combining video art, drawing, installations, fashion design and public art. She was awarded a $75,000 commission for the Market Square art installation.

The project has been quite a challenge, mainly because of the unexpectedly cold temperatures this winter.

“One time, I worked in Finland on an ice sculpture project, but this competes with that,” Ma said.

The Market Square Public Art program is produced by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the city's Office of Public Art. Its goal is to energize Market Square during the winter months, to turn the historic square into an arts destination. Last year, Market Square featured “Congregation” from U.K. new-media artists KMA.

“Not many cities of our size are taking on ambitious contemporary works of art,” said Renee Piechocki, director of the Office of Public Art. “We wanted to figure out a way to remind Pittsburgh that winter is something to enjoy — to recall that time when we couldn't wait to get our snow pants on and go out and play.”

“I get to see on a firsthand basis — Market Square has now become a gathering place,” said Jennifer Grippo, of Market Square's oldest business, the Original Oyster House (opened 1870). “‘Congregation' brought new faces Downtown. There were people who had never met holding hands to change the lights (in the interactive installation).”

Grippo sees the new installation as a metaphor for the city's transformation.

“This installation, the foliage is covered in Chinese ink,” she said. “As the foliage begins to grow, it breaks away to reveal this bright color.”

Funding for the Market Square Public Art program comes from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, the National Endowment for the Arts and an anonymous source.

There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Ma and Mayor William Peduto at 2 p.m. Feb. 19, and a reception at 11 Stanwix St. from 6:30 to 8 p.m. It's free, but reservations are requested at publicartpittsburgh.org or 412-391-2060, ext 237.

Details: MarketSquarePublicArt.com

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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