Both of O'Brien's pieces were brought to the mall by the Microwave Project, a for-profit art company co-founded by Mary Cook, a Marshall University fine-arts graduate who now lives in Washington, D.C. (Charleston art-world followers may recall her years of work in Callen McJunkin's gallery space.)
"We started about two years ago, and the idea was to try to have an opportunity to give installation artists, specifically, places to exhibit in alternative venues," said Cook, who spent last week glue gun in hand, affixing a shopping cart full of paper blossoms to branches.
"This mall is one example of an alternative venue that we're able to bring site-specific installation art to the public. I've had installation artists in freight elevators, in shipping containers," said Cook.
Another mission of the company is to help artists make, if not scads of money from installations, at least enough to cover expenses.
"This particular project, we're fortunate enough the Huntington Mall is paying us to do this," Cook said. "But a lot of times the artists, unfortunately, are doing it for free. And we don't want them to. Microwave Project is really trying hard to find a way to get the artists paid, to get their work out there. Because there is so much that goes into it. I mean, hours and hours of work."
Cook had an advocate in the mall's marketing director -- her sister, Margi MacDuff. The mall signed on to installation art after a redesign and grand reopening last year. The response was better than they could have hoped, MacDuff said, recalling shoppers' reactions to "Grace's Garden."
"In my opinion, we are starting an art revolution. The reason I say that is that as soon as people walked into the mall they stopped. Because you had to. The sculpture was massive, it was beautiful, it was elegant. And people just stared and looked at it.
"So, when they were coming to the mall that day they were in the mindset they were going to rush, rush, rush! Get that Christmas present! Get what they needed and leave. Not once did they think they were going to have to stop and appreciate art."
As for the work's creator, O'Brien hopes she is able to keep stopping people in their tracks. "Hope Blossoms" will be displayed for six months at center court.
Her life has changed in other ways as she now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, after she and her husband moved to Europe for his software job. She has her first show in Frankfurt up right now, along with two German artists, titled "Ein Haus mit vier Räumen" ("A House with Four Rooms").
She concedes that her spouse's work has made her transition to full-time artist possible. But with work like "Grace's Garden" and "Hope Blossoms" through the Microwave Project, she has hurdled one significant goal in the life of the working artist.
"If I can cover expenses on a job, I'm happy. I would certainly like more. I mean, I was a businesswoman, I have a brain for business. But for now, you know ..."
She looks up at the fantastical tree sprouting in the middle of the Huntington Mall.
"To me, that feels like a win."
For more on Kelly O'Brien's work, visit www.turningpointepress.com.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.