“The person said, ‘What do you do?’
“I said, ‘I do public art.’
“‘Where?’” the stranger asked.
“‘That one right there,’” Fuller said, pointing to his giant sculpture of a record player turntable at the shopping complex off PGA Boulevard.
Even if you don’t know who Mark Fuller is, you’ve definitely seen his portfolio. His outdoor art has become an inescapable part of Palm Beach County’s cultural landscape.
PGA Commons’ glittery butterfly sculpture? That’s Fuller.
The lizard and fish designs on I-95’s sound barrier walls? That’s Fuller.
Shimmering tropical leaves at Okeechobee and Royal Palm Beach boulevards. Those solar-powered shadows on the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach. A walking bridge at Mounts Botanical Gardens. A heart-shaped 9/11 memorial in Juno Beach. That funky-colored fish on Flagler Drive near Good Samaritan Hospital. Horses grazing at a “waterhole” at a Boynton Beach shopping complex. An abstract coin sculpture outside a bank by The Gardens mall.
“I view them as toys for the environment,” Fuller said of his public sculptures and art work. “I create what I like to see. You get to be kind of an inventor.”
A storyteller, too. Behind many of his large-scale sculptures are tributes to local history, sly jokes and, in his most personal work, a memorial to a best friend whose life was cut tragically short.
On a late October afternoon, Fuller is standing on a sidewalk along Donald Ross Road, quietly watching four workers wrangle a large piece of curved metal. Then, he notices something amiss. “I don’t want the seam on this side,” he instructs them.
Dangling from a crane, the workers are riveting thin stainless steel sheets around Fuller’s latest — and biggest — public art project. Called “C2H6,” it’s a four-ton, 22 1/2-foot-tall representation of a hydrocarbon chemical formula.
Nestled in a grove of trees, the huge, shiny sculpture is easy to spot outside the $115 million United Technologies building going up on Palm Beach Gardens’ science and research corridor.
It’s been a year-and-a-half since Fuller thought of the formula’s natural connection to the biotech hub. On his office computer, he designed the sculpture of eight reflective orbs, representing two parts carbon and six parts hydrogen. He employed a crew of metal workers to fashion sections inside a Riviera Beach warehouse and finally had it trucked to its new home right off the eastbound ramp of Interstate 95.
“When you go and stand next to it, the size of it. Wow,” he said, wonderstruck at the scale of the $300,000 piece, anchored in 10 feet of underground concrete, and built to withstand 170 mph winds. “I didn’t realize it was this big.”
Fuller, 64, is a man who thinks big. It might explain that large painting of King Kong’s face dominating the dining room of his neatly appointed home and office in West Palm’s Bear Island community.
Trim and athletic, Fuller looks more like a successful entrepreneur than boho artiste. And he is. He refers to himself as an environmental graphic and industrial designer. He drives a dark, low-slung Porsche. He easily speaks the “interfacing” lingo of corporate developers who employ him to fulfill art requirements for multimillion-dollar commercial projects.
“It’s a passion,” he noted, “but it’s also a business.”
Still, those four small circles tattooed on his left foot hint at a freer spirit.
And to do his kind of large-scale work (“It’s not ‘plop art’ that you can stick anywhere”), he’s had to master many skills: computer graphics, architecture, engineering, construction, mathematics and landscaping.
“I don’t sit there and hammer and beat my stuff,” he said. “It’s machine cut. My work is not built by me personally. I spend time creating it and conceptualizing it. It’s a different kind of craft.”
Born and raised in Lake Placid, N.Y., Fuller knew he was visually creative from an early age. After migrating to West Palm Beach in the late ’70s, he worked as director of graphics for Urban Design Studios, and eventually ran his own eight-person office specializing in signage for hotels and shopping centers.
But he never liked being pigeonholed, so on a whim he entered a competition to create a public sculpture for the corner of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Flagler Drive. His image of a multicolored flying fish, based partly on the history of a nearby wartime seaplane base, won.
“I did it for fun,” he said. “But as time went on, I found I liked doing that kind of thing more.”
And he liked how art could tell a story, if you looked closely enough.
Take Fuller’s “The Last Pasture” and “Waterhole No. 3,” a sculpture project of horses grazing around a man-made lake at the Boynton Town Center. It might be just pretty animals and pure nostalgia. Or it might be a pointed nod to a lost time before commercial development swallowed up every bit of pasture land in Palm Beach County.
And then there’s “Magician’s Birthday,” outside the Wells Fargo bank near The Gardens mall. The vertical abstract sculpture is topped by a row of seven coin-like silver discs. The idea came when “I was having difficulty with a bank,” Fuller recalled. “My account always seemed to have a lot less in it than I thought.”
So, he made sure the coins all have a hole in them. “It was like a personal joke I could slide in there,” he said.
Hired to create a work for a new dining and shopping complex on west PGA Boulevard, he started by walking around the empty grass field.
“There were monarch butterflies everywhere,” he said. “That stuck in my mind.”
When PGA Commons was built, his reflective sculpture of nine triangular frames that create the effect of a metamorphosing butterfly became more than an art work. It has been featured in national magazines and newspapers.
“Some of the pieces he’s done are iconic now,” said former Gardens mayor Eric Jablin. “People refer to them. It’s like, ‘I’ll meet you at the butterfly.’”
“Every time I sit outside, I see people taking pictures of it,” added Joel Channing, the chairman of Channing Corp., which developed PGA Commons. “We took the butterfly (idea), and made it the icon in our advertisements.”
Channing said Fuller is the best artist he’s ever worked with, and he knows his stuff: One of his professors was the German abstract master Josef Albers.
“He can see things that other people can’t,” said Channing of Fuller. “He just has a knack of coming up with the right thing for the right place.”
There’s one piece that Fuller wishes he hadn’t needed to come up with.
The one for Hank.
To this day, he gets choked up talking about Henry Skokowski.
Fuller’s one-time boss at Urban Design Studios, Skokowski built a formidable reputation as a land planner for communities such as PGA National, Breakers West and BallenIsles.
Hank and Mark were more than co-workers. They were tight pals. Dive buddies. They bonded over an obsession with ’60s and ’70s rock — Pink Floyd, the Stones, The Clash. Skokowski had a tag on his email that read: “Let the music set you free.”
“It was a huge connection between us,” Fuller said.
Skokowski was also a workaholic finally getting some balance in his life. After completing plans for Legacy Place, he took a dream vacation to Australia, where he motorcycled, dived the Great Barrier Reef and, as always, bought lots of music. He’d send emails to friends, calling himself “Crocodile Hank.”
It all came to a terrible end on Valentine’s Day in 2004, when Skokowski was killed after his motorcycle was hit head-on by a car along the Great Ocean Road in Melbourne. He was 55 years old.
A distraught Fuller was asked to create a legacy to his friend at Legacy Place. Remembering that shared passion for music, especially the vinyl 45 rpm singles of their youth, he thought of a record turntable.
And that’s how “Stack 45” became Palm Beach County’s only rock and roll memorial. The curved black “record” lines around a spindle of 45 rpm plastic inserts give the sculpture a kinetic, volume-rattling quality. Being in a traffic circle adds to the spinning jukebox effect.
As always, Fuller left clues. The rows of five black lines and five inserts denote Skokowski’s age of 55. The piece appears to bend back and arc skyward, as if Fuller is sending favorite tunes to his old pal up in heaven.
“I wanted to put so much of him” in the work, Fuller said. “He and I were the best of friends. That was an emotional piece for me.”
Of course, some don’t get it.
“I’ve heard people say they think it’s a big rib cage of an animal,” Fuller said. “It doesn’t matter if people see the underlying messages. The main thing is they find something pleasing in it.”
Fuller also honored Skokowski by placing benches around Legacy Place with Skokowski’s shoes molded on them. It was Fuller’s way of hoping that his absent friend would “be right back.” He did a similar bench at Gardens City Hall, with pieces including a briefcase, half-eaten doughnut, a cup of coffee and a Rolling Stones key chain.
It was the perfect tribute, said ex-mayor Jablin. “Hank used to sit outside there in front of City Hall with a briefcase, coffee and a doughnut.”
In some ways, Fuller’s work has become synonymous with Palm Beach Gardens, where he also created a swirling sculpture of red and white blood cells at the Gardens Medical Center and an obelisk marked by 89,996 clear marbles at Legacy Place. For free, he crafted a children’s memorial sculpture at a Burns Road park and designed the site of the towering 9/11 memorial along Northlake Boulevard. “He’s given a lot back to the city,” said Jablin.
But that ubiquity has caused problems.
In 2009, there was an uproar when Fuller was chosen to create bus shelters for the city and residents thought public money was paying for “this art stuff,” as Fuller recalled it. The city council eventually rejected the plan, and Fuller remains sensitive. For most of his work, Fuller is paid directly by developers. In Palm Beach Gardens, a city ordinance requires that at least 1 percent of any commercial project over a million dollars be earmarked for public art. “These projects are not funded with tax dollars,” he emphasized.
And to this day, he keeps models of those proposed bus shelters prominently displayed on shelves in his living room. It’s the one that got away, and it still stings.
What’s next for Fuller? He’s not slowing down, with several projects planned in Seattle, California and New Jersey.
He’s in that most enviable of positions: being sought by clients, and having the freedom to create without a lot of undue interference. Good thing, since he usually knows exactly what he wants.
“I’m told I’m difficult to work for,” he admitted. “I’m particular and demanding.”
For an artist whose signature is splashed all over the county, Fuller keeps a relatively low profile. The father of two grown children gets a kick out of driving around and showing his work to his grandchild. But he’d rather stay anonymous, and let the work speak for itself. Or let people tell him what they think.
Fuller remembers when they were putting up the “Magician’s Birthday” sculpture and a passerby stopped.
“‘What’s that?’, the passerby asked.
“‘You call that art?’
“We cracked up,” Fuller said. “Everybody’s going to have an opinion.”