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Austin’s largest public art installation is also one of its least known, though its importance is immeasurable. Located on the east side of Interstate 35 in the north part of the city, the Mueller SunFlowers is a work of art with a purpose: returning electricity to the city’s power grid.
Fifteen flower-shaped solar panels form an electric garden just off Interstate 35 in the Mueller development of Austin, Texas. These large structures, which were installed in 2009, are a combination of art and technology.
Artists Mags Harries and Lajos Heder of Harries/Heder Collaborative from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who have installed more than 30 public art projects around the United States, created SunFlowers – A Garden of Energy by blending elements of light, color and shadow while also emphasizing renewable energy. Each structure harnesses sunlight to generate power, absorbing the sun’s rays during the day and converting it into energy at night.
SunFlowers emits a beautiful and complex series of blue LEDs each evening as they produce solar energy to be used by the community. Since 2009, approximately 400,000 kilowatt-hours of energy have been produced from SunFlowers, offsetting more than 565,000 miles’ worth of carbon emissions from the average American car.
In a statement from the artists:
“The sun sustains all of our lives. All of our energy is originally solar energy, it has created our world and fuels all our activities. Coal and oil are stored solar energy, but they are running out, and obtaining and processing them causes problems. For our future, it is a question of how we capture and use solar energy, so that it keeps us going without environmental catastrophe.
“The sun and its light are the medium of most art. As artists we celebrate this. The SunFlowers project captures solar energy and plays with sunlight, getting to the heart of the matter.
“We set out to create something new and fitting for the Mueller Redevelopment and for the whole city of Austin. Sustainable development and environmental stewardship are a high priority here. We decided to put our project to work creating renewable energy, as well as shade and comfort along the bike path. Natural sunflowers process solar energy to grow, ours do it to light themselves at night and to put extra kilowatts of electrical energy into the grid.”
Passers-by can view SunFlowers from their cars as they drive on I-35. For a more intimate exploration of the installation, turn off at the nearby shopping center to walk the trail that winds amid the colossal structures.
A panel of visual art and design professionals selected SunFlowers out of 37 proposals submitted for Mueller’s signature public art gateway. Facilitated by Austin’s Art in Public Places (AIPP) program, the process began with a call for nominations from around the US. Community input was also instrumental in choosing the winner; the public overwhelmingly selected SunFlowers through online feedback as well as comments collected at Austin City Hall and various locations around the city.
SunFlowers is part of the Mueller Redevelopment plan, a 20-year process in which the city and community envisioned a new use for the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The project aimed to establish a mixed-use, new urban neighborhood that is pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, fiscally responsible and sustainable. SunFlowers is the culmination of a four-year public process.