Many Virgin Islanders know metal artist Mike Walsh for his 17-foot-tall aluminum sculpture, the Middle Passage Monument, on the lawn at St. Croix Educational Complex. He has now gained international viewers of his works in the quarterly Artist Talk magazine, published in Great Britain.
Walsh and his work are featured in a six-page spread in the magazine’s Issue No. 13, released in October.
“I literally have no exposure beyond friends and visitors, so when they [Artist Talk] asked, I agreed,” Walsh told the Source.
Walsh’s metal sculptures are scattered around St. Croix and patrons have seen others at his gallery in Peter’s Rest. There are several at Fort Frederik, the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and the St. Croix Research and Technology Park. There are also sculptures at private residences.
Much of his work can be seen online on his website.
Walsh came to St. Croix in 1976 from Long Island, New York. He had earned a degree at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where one of his teachers – “metal guy” – sparked his interest in steel, bronze and aluminum sculpture.
Walsh said he was glad to get away from the mainland and concentrate on his art.
“It was a personal undertaking rather than a way to get rich,” he said about his early years on the island.
With a large boating community and buildings with metal hurricane brackets, there was plenty of work for Walsh. He taught himself metal fabrication for some projects. One big project was to construct metal components for a movie set, “Dreams of Gold,” which told of the discovery of the sunken treasure of the sunken Spanish ship Atocha. He also fabricated metal parts for dredging around the vessel.
Walsh and his wife, Barbara, opened Walsh Metal Works and Gallery shortly after moving to St. Croix, with Barbara taking on the office work and helping Mike recruit workers and interns.
Walsh hired several metal workers to help with building the 12-by-17 foot tall Middle Passage Monument in the late 1990s, a work that eventually found a home in front of St. Croix Educational Complex, and the first somewhat different sculpture now at home at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The purpose of the monuments was to honor those who died during the transatlantic slave trade.
“After researching the history of the slave trade, I chose to depict the belief of a gateway through which the spirit returns to Africa by way of the Island Below the Sea. This large aluminum piece consisted of two joined parts representing the opening that connected two worlds – the physical with the spiritual return,” Walsh wrote in Artist Talk.
Before its burial at sea in 1998, the marine version of the Middle Passage Monument was displayed in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. After a dedication ceremony and funeral procession with dignitaries from Africa and others, there was an overnight vigil. The monument, in pieces, was then sailed by the Yankee Clipper east into the Atlantic Ocean and dropped overboard to mark a common grave. Walsh said he attended the New York event but was not acknowledged as having anything to do with the sculpture.
According to Walsh, the second sculpture was to have been purchased by Bermuda, which was a crossroads of the slave trade, but no contact was made to arrange delivery. Eventually, Walsh was told to install it at the University of the Virgin Islands. Walsh said he decided to install the monument at the high school – a “rapid deployment with staples.” He is amazed the sculpture has withstood every hurricane except Maria, which inflicted some damage.
In 2007, a representative from Bermuda visited St. Croix and a formal dinner and reception were held for him. Walsh delivered him to the school to see the sculpture the next day but had to abandon the man to make a flight with his family. Nothing came of the visit and the monument remains on the grounds of the high school.
There was no official dedication ceremony by the Department of Education, Walsh said, but the school’s PTA commissioned miniature sculptures for several years for student-of-the-year awards. Walsh said there was a so-called re-dedication just before Hurricane Maria with about a dozen people in attendance.
For several years before the 2017 storms, the Walshes hosted art shows, which often included his sleek, oversized sculptures along with other local and regional artists. Hopefully, the shows will return after COVID-19 is under control.
Over the years, Walsh has displayed his artwork at the National Academy of Design in New York City, El Museo Moderno de Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha, Nebraska, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as galleries across the Caribbean.