Living with Art

Michele Oka Doner returns to her native Miami Beach to create integrated installations in South of Fifth living spaces.

By Michelle F. Solomon

Michele Oka Doner lays bronze palm fronds, part of an installation she’s creating for the new development, One Ocean.
Michele Oka Doner lays bronze palm fronds, part of an installation she’s creating for the new development, One Ocean.


“Sculpture and architecture have the same parents. In fact, many times they are twins.” This is artist Michele Oka Doner’s view and the epitome of what, perhaps, has drawn her to two Miami Beach projects where her art will seamlessly integrate into daily living spaces.
Oka Doner was commissioned to create site-specific installations for new condominium developments — One Ocean and Louver House — in Miami Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood.

The first project — in the lobby of One Ocean — showcases cast-bronze decoration elements that depict a variety of natural species.
In early September, Oka Doner was on-site, installing blue-green terrazzo with inlaid bronze on the lobby floor, then laying the bronze palm fronds dotted with shells and mother of pearl.

TOP: The artist’s first public installation, Radiant Site, is in the Herald Square subway station. BELOW: The mural the artist created for Related Group’s Apogee Beach condo tower.
TOP: The artist’s first public installation, Radiant Site, is in the Herald Square subway station. BELOW: The mural the artist created for Related Group’s Apogee Beach condo tower.

“The lobby of One Ocean has been reimagined as a palm court,” says the artist, “with embedded bronze fronds moving slowly in mother-of-pearl breezes. This implied oasis will give both visitors to the building and residents a sense of welcome — a shelter — that is timeless in the human psyche.”

It isn’t her first large-scale work for Related Group, who is developing One Ocean. In 2013, Oka Doner created a mosaic-tile wall mural for Related’s Apogee Beach condo tower.

Another new project is the Louver House, where the artist was commissioned to craft custom pieces that mesh with the design of the 12-unit boutique property. She’s integrating her artwork into its lobby garden. Her plan is to create bronze sculptural tables and benches that will invite residents to gather among the work.

“Early cities were built around communal courtyards,” Oka Doner explains. “There is privacy, yet community.” The artist offers kudos to the architects of Louver for designing with the notion of communal courtyards. “It adds yet another layer to an exceptional configuration — air and light and materiality — so suited to the site. My installation, in the very center, is so well integrated into Louver House.”
Architect Rene Gonzalez describes the project as “designed to be a part of its environment.”

 The Louver House residences.
The Louver House residences.

Again, this furthers the conversation of sculpture or architecture. “Is the cave a sculpture or architecture? One may ask the same question of the hut, igloo, the mud architecture of the American west and western Africa. Sculpture and architecture move apart, but the base has never weakened, really,” Oka Doner says.

Camilo Miguel, Jr., the CEO of Mast Capital and developer of Louver House, calls Oka Doner’s work “functional art.”

The 69-year-old Miami Beach native has her art studio in New York, but still maintains a residence in her hometown. Her father, Kenneth Oka, was a judge and mayor in Miami Beach. Her mother, Gertrude, was a pianist. She grew up a few blocks from the ocean. “So for 18 years, I was watching the ocean, or smelling the ocean, or seeing how the light bounced off that huge body of water so close by,” she told Jan Garden Castro in the September 2009 issue of Sculpture magazine.

The artist recalled finding carrier shells — shells that collect sea-floor debris and attach it to their surfaces — along with other shells, objects, stones, and minerals that she said began “a lifetime romance.”

It is this fascination with the study and observation of South Florida’s landscape that continually shows up in her work. While she has completed numerous public art commissions, some of the most notable are the art-in-public-places installations at the Miami International Airport. The public art installation, “A Walk on the Beach” — a half-mile long walkway — has been called a “fundamental part” of the airport and was adopted by Miami as one of the city’s “wonders.” Like the One-Ocean lobby installation, Oka Doner used terrazzo for the Beach walkway, then inlaid cast bronze elements scattered with mother of pearl.

In a book about the artist, the late architect Morris Lapidus described his glee when the Miami work was unveiled. Because of a bad back — and what he called “declining health” — Lapidus, who designed the Fontainebleau hotel, would always use a wheelchair to navigate the mammoth Miami airport. “But when the work was unveiled, I was so anxious to see it that I forgot my need for a wheelchair. One look at the beauty of more than a half-mile of Oka Doner’s creation so astounded me that all I wanted to do was to walk along and study it, regardless of my disability. The splendor of this great work wrought a miracle only an artist can understand.”

Two other public artworks also use the concourse floors as canvas and are in permanent residence at the airport. The extensions of “A Walk on the Beach” include “The Galaxy” (2008) and “From Seashore to Tropical Garden” (2010).

Her fascination with public installation got its start in 1987 when Oka Doner was living in New York. Commissioned by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority Arts in Transit program, her proposal suggested a “long thruway bathed in an aura of golden light with thousands of small golden tiles, creating a zone of radiance and reflectivity.” Her idea was to give New Yorkers a “moment of reflection, a light to soothe, not only the eye, but the mind of all travelers.” Her first large-scale public installation, titled “Radiant Site,” remains in the Herald Square subway station. It is 165-feet long and features 11,000 gold-luster stoneware tiles.

Her art isn’t always confined to floors and walls, however. She is also a sculpturist, furniture designer, jewelry designer, and in March, balletgoers will see Oka Doner’s vision for the Miami City Ballet’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The artist has been commissioned by Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, to design the sets and costumes for the George Balanchine ballet, which will be part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Miami City Ballet.

“I am happy that my work keeps drawing me back to a place I love — a place that nurtured me and educated me from birth to young adulthood. Miami gave me a vocabulary and a sense of pace, rhythm, and wonder. It opened the door to a lifetime of exploration of the natural world.”

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