Today we’re featuring a story about a Florida artist, Brian R. Owens.
On November 13th, a newly revised exhibit opened at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa, FL, about one of the first groups of people in North America. The accidental discovery of a ceremonial burial ground in 1982 resulted in the unearthing of one of the largest and most well-preserved skeletal sites on the continent. The excavation reshaped our understanding of “archaic hunter-gatherers” and how they lived 7000 to 8000 years ago, about 3000 years before the “Great Pyramid”. They are called “Windover People”. Research is constantly ongoing as new technologies emerge to analyze the remains of 168 people. Over 10,000 bones and artifacts are preserved at Florida State University. The Museum commissioned Brian R. Owens to sculpt an artistic interpretation of one particular female based on her skull. It’s the centerpiece of the new exhibit. They call her the “Windover Woman”.
CBF: What did you have to work from?
Lots of detailed measurements of her skull but not the skull itself. I also had some computer-generated images that were made years ago on the basis of the skull. The remains included DNA but it’s so damaged that it is of little use. At least for now. Archeologists generally agree that she was descended from Asians.
CBF: How is an artistic interpretation different from a forensic sculpture?
A forensic sculpture is built one muscle at a time onto an exact replica of the subject’s skull. We didn’t do that because we did not have enough data to use that approach. For example, we know how wide the cheek bones are on her skull, but we don’t actually know the soft tissue thickness of the flesh that lived on it. If she had died seven years ago we could calculate the most probable thickness using statistical data. But no such data exists for people who lived so long ago so I had to fill in the blanks myself. We looked at modern data for various ethnic groups that may have contributed to her DNA and made some intelligent guesses. In the end this sculpture has less to do with measurements and more to do with triggering an emotional response in the viewer.
CBF: What is the sculpture made of?
The surface is mostly silicone rubber and the eyes are acrylic. Other plastics support it inside it to give it strength. Silicone rubber is what movie-makers use to make “practical” special effects.
CBF: Why are they called the “Windover People”?
The excavation site is near a subdivision named “Windover Farms” near Titusville.
CBF: Why such a realistic portrayal?
Museum officials wanted a “hyper real” sculpture. It wasn’t until the unveiling that I understood what a good call that was. It’s one thing to see skeletons and miniature models of villages, and quite another to confront the likeness of someone who appears to be your contemporary; someone equal to yourself in cognitive potential. It’s hard for us to fathom a period of time like 7000 years and easy to overlook the fact that they were very much like us. The sculpture succeeds in drawing the viewer in. The gaze implies intelligence. It reminds us that she was Homo Sapiens.
CBF: How do you measure the success of a sculpture like this?
We may never know how close the likeness is. That’s OK. Hopefully it will cause some viewers to reflect on how we perceive long passages of time. To think about their own origins. Perhaps even to ponder the now debunked concept of “race” that my generation was encouraged to believe: obsolete concepts that were finally ground to bits by the human genome project.
CBF: How do exhibits like this move the culture forward?
This exhibit is at a nexus between art, natural science, education and entertainment. So it’s appealing on different levels to a variety of people. For example, a history buff can leave the exhibit knowing something about how a sculpture like this is made. Hopefully it encourages people to think. Also, these archeologists and museum officials are looking to the future. They want new generations to keep blasting away at questions that have preoccupied mankind from the beginning
You can see the Windover Woman at the Brevard Museum of History & Natural Science located at 2201 Michigan Ave, Cocoa, FL 32926. They’re open Wednesday – Saturday 10:00am-5:00pm, year round. Call 321-632-1830 for more information.
The Florida Historical Society is shooting a video about the Windover story and exhibit, including some footage of the sculpture and how it was made. “Stay tuned” – I’ll post a link to their YouTube channel when it’s done. Thanks again to Culture Builds Florida. The response has been positive in the extreme. It was gratifying to be a part of this exhibit. (Brian R. Owens)