Charlotte ceramicist Paula Smith enters giant turtle in Hilton Head Island competition

Long, arduous journeys are part of sea turtle life, and arrival at their intended destination is never certain.

Paula Smith’s giant ceramic ectotherm is facing the same struggle.

Her sea turtle lives in the basement of CPCC’s Center for Arts Technology building, waiting to hear if Hilton Head Island, S.C., wants to buy it.

Vibrant tiles in the shapes of flowers, fish and faces swirl around the turtle’s body, reflecting the whimsy and freedom of the artist’s personality. Smith, a CPCC ceramics instructor, planned to create something geometric on the turtle, like a meditative prayer mandala, but after the form was complete, she didn’t see it the same way. She wanted people to be able to connect with it, so she covered the turtle with faces: her students’ faces, a girl from the 1960s, Marie Antoinette, Rocky and Bullwinkle – there’s something for everyone.

Smith likes a variety in scale. Some of her recent work includes a series of large torsos and other small, pinched farm-animal bowls.

Smith made the 10-by-12-foot creature in hopes that it would be accepted into Hilton Head’s second biennial Public Art Exhibition. She’ll learn the jury’s decision in May. They will pick 20 pieces – out of 530 entries – that will travel to the coastal town.

“I’m somewhere between the joy of making it,” Smith said, “and the stress of waiting.”

Why connect with a turtle? Smith had an 8-foot mosaic hand accepted into the 2011 Hilton Head exhibition, and when she delivered the piece to the Coastal Discovery Museum where it would be shown, she visited a turtle in one of the museum’s natural exhibits.

“I looked at him and we kind of connected,” Smith said, “and when I walked away to look at something else, he followed me. He could have been hungry. We went back and forth a couple of times. I looked at him again and the light bulb went off: I need to make a sea turtle.”

The seeming levity of Smith’s idea paired with her commitment to this labor-intensive project could fool you into thinking she has a long history with public art. She doesn’t.

Drawn to public art

Smith became interested in public art four years ago when a project in Kansas City, Mo. – her hometown – was accepting applications. She spoke to a friend who had experience in the public art realm, and he explained the hardships: hours spent in committee meetings, large-scale projects for a drastically low wage, huge time commitments. Smith didn’t send the application.

Yet here she is, having spent 231 hours firing tiles and laying them onto a giant turtle shell that may not be accepted into an exhibition. If it is not chosen, she might use it as a jumping off point for a series of sculptures in a park; or it could end up in her yard; or on CPCC’s campus.

“Public art is different than work for a gallery,” Smith said. “There’s a joy in making something and letting people – all people – interact with it. They don’t have to go into a space that might be intimidating to enjoy it.”

Also, large-scale outdoor work appeals to Smith. She takes inspiration from Antoni Gaudí, whose giant mosaic works make Barcelona distinct and lively. Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures attract Smith, too; she loves the way kids can loop through “The Firebird’s” perch in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art on South Tryon Street.

Smith’s turtle has interactive qualities, too. She made the surface smooth enough to function as a bench, and she plans to create a scavenger hunt to go along with it. Participants can find the single dragonfly tile, or the horse, or Shakespeare.

“When people can climb on it and sit on it and interact with it,” Smith said, “it’s just another excitement for me.”

One foot after another

The ambition it takes to create large sculpture is usually accompanied by occasional waves of trepidation. Whenever Smith started to feel like the turtle was unwieldy, she thought of Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Wild.” In the memoir, Strayed deals with her mother’s death and subsequent heroin addiction by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail without any long-distance hiking experience.

“If I started feeling nervous,” Smith said, “I just thought of Cheryl Strayed out west, putting one foot in front of the other. Even if her feet were blistered and bleeding, she couldn’t stay where she was, she had to keep going.”

Smith’s friend, art historian Laura Dufresne, helped her create the face tiles (as did her students). When she considers the opulence and scope of Smith’s work, she laughs.

“Her pieces are so visually incredible,” Dufresne said. “She’s putting in a lot of effort and time and technology. It’s labor intensive. I always kid her about that. She always chooses the most glorious possible solution to her creative question.”

If the turtle is chosen for the Hilton Head exhibition, it will be in the running for the grand prize: purchase by the city. She also equipped the turtle’s flippers with hurricane anchors and named the creature “Hilton” just in case.

Now she waits. She doesn’t have the same confident feeling that she did when she submitted her mosaic hand two years ago. While jurors contemplate the turtle’s fate, he continues to delight all who walk into Smith’s studio.