Tucked unassumingly in the far back corner of the University of Georgia’s Lake Herrick stands in the water an elusive yet stagnant figure. It towers about 8 feet tall, measured from the bottom of the murky water that laps around its four rusted legs to the highest tip of the forking chrome antlers that branch from its sleek metal skull. Posed with its head locked in the direction of the lake that unfolds before it, anyone who walks out across the old wooden bridge connecting the trails on both sides of the water finds themselves eye to eye with this silent and imposing observer.
Many passerbys who frequent the trails of the Oconee Forest Park rarely take note of the figure’s presence now; it stands unobtrusive, unmarked and unexplained. With no record in sight, it’s almost as if this unidentified piece has been keeping watch over Lake Herrick since the beginning of time.
The figure, made of reclaimed motorcycle parts, has rusted to a deep burnt copper color and the brush around it has gone rogue. While the silver tailpipes protruding from the hindquarter of the deer may still catch the eye of an observant onlooker, the chrome no longer glints in the sunlight with the same brilliance it once did.
Time, weather, and water has taken a toll. While this rustic and disheveled appearance may lead spectators to believe that it has always been part of Lake Herrick’s landscape, Ryan Woods and Sam Weaver know better.
These former UGA students met in their undergraduate ARST 3400 class at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2014. The class, “Construction in Metal,” was taught by adjunct professor LeeAnn Mitchell and was designed to teach metal work skills to upper level art students. While both students took an interest in sculpting metal, it was only by the graciousness of the professor that allowed Weaver into the class that led to him befriending Woods.
“Ryan was an art major and I was not,” recalls Weaver. “I embellished that I knew how to weld – I had taken one welding class in high school. I asked LeeAnn if I could go ahead and join even though it was an upper level skills class. They needed another person so they let me in.”
Throughout the semester, the students learned elements of forgery, welding, and design. Their final project was to be a partner sculpture in which to showcase their newly acquired skills. The only requirement – to display their piece at any outside location on campus.
Woods and Weaver teamed up. “He was the guy who was good at seeing everything and having the vision,” says Weaver, “and I was the guy who would go in and tack the welds.”
They began to hunt for the prime place to display their future project. Weaver, a frequent visitor of the trails at Oconee Forest Park, suggested exploring this timbered area of campus. It was only when they crossed the old wooden bridge arching over the rippling waters of Lake Herrick that they discovered the perfect location to play host to their outdoor exposition. To one side of the bridge, the lake gathered to a small inlet and rising out of the water was a muddy exposed island.
“We settled with the bridge spot because it was so open and there was a good bit of land,” says Woods. With the location decided, the two turned their minds towards the start of construction.
Just as they had walked into finding the location for the piece, Woods and Weaver happened upon the inspiration for the sculpture itself by chance. Outside of the metal studio was a scrap pit where people would abandon odds and ends of leftover pieces. When an old gas tank of a Harley Davidson motorcycle showed up among the discards, this sparked an idea.
“Ryan offhandedly said that it looked like a deer head,” remembers Weaver. “He had already been making animals [in other projects], so we were like, ‘Let’s make a deer!’”
And so the work began. The process started by making a frame. Heating a rod until it was warm enough to be pliable, the two students bent the metal into the sloping curved “S” shape of a deer spine. The idea was to create an inner skeleton, similar to the actual anatomy of a deer, and then to cover the rod framing with thin metal.
“We just found some sheet metal out in the pit and used that as the skin,” explains Woods. “It had some nice rust on it anyway so it kind of looked like some deer felt. It just happened to work out really well.”
The deer slowly began to take form. The process involved both Woods and Weaver working together to manage the large pieces of metal. Woods recalls trying to manage the temperamental medium with difficulty at times: “Sam would be holding it in one spot and I’d have to bend sheet metal around the frame and hope it didn’t pop the tack and hit me in the face.”
A few weeks (and one burnt shoe) later, the deer was finished, outfitted with several chrome exhaust pipes and antlers of silver tubing. Planting the sculpture on its island throne was now the only task that remained.
At the forest parking area, Woods and Weaver loaded the towering figure onto a metal dolly and wheeled it as close to the edge of the lake as possible. The dry season had left more land exposed than usual, but they still had to cross a bit of swamp to plant the deer. Bracing to support the nearly 200 pounds of forged and welded metal, they sloshed out into the mud until reaching the small bit of raised land. “It took four of us to get it out there,” recalls Woods with a smile. “My feet sunk into my ankles.”
Large pins were driven through the hooves and into the ground to stabilize the deer. Woods and Weaver christened their final project as “The Vigil,” a name fitting for the peaceful yet reverent demeanor of the piece. It looks out across the lake and towards campus, as a silent sentinel, always keeping watch.
Despite its sturdiness, the two students are surprised that it’s still standing. “I figured it would’ve sunk, or rusted to pieces by now,” remarks Woods. “That’s lucky that it hasn’t.”
On loan to the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA, the sculpture was originally scheduled to be on display at the lake for only two weeks. Three years later, it still stands. Weaver believes the piece is still here “because it was such a hassle to get it out there.” He says no one from Warnell has ever mentioned it to either him or Woods.
Director of lands and facilities at Warnell, Michael Hunter, says there is information about the school’s agreement to host the statue, but that the file has been misplaced.
An unintentional decision, the sculpture is left unmarked with any type of identification of Woods’ and Weaver’s work. “Occasionally, people somehow figure out that it was ours and come and say something to me,” laughs Woods, “but its only happened a couple of times. It’s always really nice.”
For Weaver, returning to visit the sculpture is like stepping back in time. “I love to come out running and look at it. It reminds me of a different time when I was here,” he reflects. “It’s always a good way to put a perspective on my ungrad life compared to now. Sometimes I’ll run out here with my buddies and I’ll make them stop and look at it. Nobody believes that I actually helped to make it.”
Just as “The Vigil” continues to stand steadfastly at its lookout, the memories from this project have remained with both Woods and Weaver even years after its completion. For both, most prevalent is the appreciation they have for the teacher who made it all happen. “LeeAnn let me in even though I had very little knowledge of the concepts,” recalls Weaver. “She would let her students come in and bang on some metal, blow off some steam if we needed to.” Both agree that the metal studio was more than just a classroom.
Weaver continued, explaining how having the chance to take the class changed his outlook on the arts: “It definitely made me realize that it’s okay to express your feelings a little more. I got better at it and I think that’s something that’s still stuck with me.”
Now as much a part of the campus as Lake Herrick itself, “The Vigil” will stand until it falls, remaining a mystery and sparking the imagination of the wanderers who just so happen to stumble upon it.