The most controversial statue in the bayside town of Rockport doesn’t stand outside a county courthouse or mark the location of a Civil War skirmish. It doesn’t honor a Confederate general or draw protesters armed with sledgehammers and ropes. Instead, the sculpture stands unfinished in Steve Russell’s cramped, paint-splattered studio, towering above easels, dusty furniture, and decades’ worth of artwork. Sheathed in body armor, the nine-foot-tall Spanish conquistador has a complexion the color of a rusty penny, his eyes peeking out beneath a bulky military helmet. The humanoid figure can seem, at first glance, like a sixteenth-century version of Frankenstein’s monster. “Everyone who has come in the door has had to try not to trip over themselves,” said Russell, the gravelly voiced 74-year-old artist behind the sculpture.

Russell is almost done with the conquistador, but his work is far from over. He plans to sculpt several more figures that will eventually be cast in bronze—a pirate, a Catholic religious figure clutching a cross, and, eventually, another set of works representing the region’s original Karankawa inhabitants. The tableau will then be installed on the shoreline of Little Bay, an inlet popular among boaters and anglers that sits beside one of Rockport’s busiest roadways. The Karankawa will be placed about sixty feet from the Europeans, arranged to suggest they’re watching the foreigners from the shore.

Dubbed “Cultural Interface,” the public art initiative is meant, in Russell’s telling, to capture the spirit of the first encounter between Europeans and the region’s Indigenous people. Assuming such a meeting occurred in the Rockport area, it would likely have taken place in the first half of the sixteenth century. (Far less likely: the notion that a Jack Sparrow–like pirate was in attendance; the heyday of such buccaneers wouldn’t arrive for another century, but Russell considers them a part of the region’s history.) Once finished, Russell said, the eight-hundred-pound bronze sculptures will be sturdy enough to remain standing for a thousand years. “I wanted them to be larger than life,” he explained, gazing at his creations during a recent studio tour. “I wanted them to remind people of how we all came to be here.”

The project was commissioned by the Rockport Cultural Arts District, a nonprofit that aims to highlight the region’s history and ways of life. Jennifer Day, the organization’s executive director, said “Cultural Interface” will cost around $450,000, a large chunk of which has already been raised through private donations. To complete the year-and-a-half-long project, the nonprofit also has applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that funds projects around the nation. The first half of the installation—the three European figures—could be in place by the end of the year. Standing on the shore of Little Bay on a recent afternoon, Day said the project, with its interpretative collision of disparate cultures, still gives her “goosebumps.” “There’s really nothing like this sculpture series in the United States,” she said. “It will be extremely well-known and draw many, many tourists to this area.”

Russell’s scene of the “interface” between Native Americans and Europeans doesn’t represent a particular encounter in the historical record, such as Christopher Columbus’s detailed account of arriving in what today is the Bahamas. But as Russell points out, his work is an imagined event and more closely resembles historical fiction, the literary genre in which a writer (or in this case a sculptor) depicts a period of time with some degree of historical detail while using dramatic license.

Spanish explorers began mapping the Texas coast as early as 1519. Though Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the vaunted Spanish explorer, provided the first documented encounter with the region’s Indigenous inhabitants when he shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528, there is no record chronicling a similar meeting 160 miles south in the Rockport area. What is known is that over the next two centuries, a series of colonizers from Spain and France arrived on the Texas coastline, bringing with them conflict, disease, and slavery.

Where Russell sees a tasteful tribute to a simple but profound moment, his critics see a celebration of destruction. They wonder: At a time when statues and monuments honoring Confederate leaders and European explorers are coming down across the nation, why would Rockport want to erect a new one? Now Russell, an artist who has been more focused on sunsets than on the nuances of racial politics, finds himself in the middle of a larger cultural battle. It’s a fight he says he never intended to join, though his fiercest critics find that claim hard to believe.

Steve Russell's massive sculpture project will be installed on the shoreline of Little Bay, a recreational inlet just outside downtown Rockport seen here on July 7, 2021. The location, on the edge of Rockport Cultural Arts District, has always been popular among kayakers and fisherman and, last year, was home to a major Trump rally.
“Cultural Interface” will be installed on the shoreline of Little Bay, a recreational inlet near downtown Rockport.Photograph by Peter Holley

Though Rockport produced Jesús Moroles, a celebrated Texas sculptor known for his abstract granite works, the area’s art is overwhelmingly focused on marine life and coastal scenes—the bays, the birds, and the iconic wind-bent oak trees. No one is better known for this quintessential Rockport style than painter Steve Russell; the walls of his home are lined with seascapes. “Cultural Interface” is a major departure from the giant crabs, dolphins, and mermaids represented in Rockport’s typical statuary.

Partly as a way to better understand the landscape that dominates so much of his painting, the Rockport native is a student of the region’s history, particularly the arrival of European explorers. Many of his paintings depict Spanish ships cruising on local bays. Russell has long imagined first contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples along the beaches he knows so well, but it wasn’t until he saw a sculpture called The Little Mermaid—an iconic tourist attraction along Copenhagen’s shoreline—that he began to consider the possibility of installing statues along Rockport’s waterways to bring his fascination to life, and to the public. After selling the idea to the Rockport Cultural Arts District, he got to work last summer. For months, he used high-density polyurethane foam that has the feel of balsa wood to shape prototypes of his figures.

His original vision placed the sculptures one hundred feet off the shore, which partly explains their immensity, but safety concerns forced the Rockport Cultural Arts District to find a new location for the statues on the shoreline, where they’re likely to be seen by thousands of motorists each day. For an artist in the final stages of his career, the prime location was a chance to put a lasting stamp on the town where he was born. “The cavemen left their handprint on the walls and it’s always been people’s desire to represent their world—not necessarily for the ones who are coming, but just out of the sheer joy of doing it,” he explained. “This sculpture project is my handprint.”

Though the project appears to enjoy support among many Rockport residents, for others, particularly Native Americans and Latinos, the sculptures evoke a painful past, regardless, many say, of Russell’s intention. The meeting embodied by his work was not a benign “cultural interface,” they argue, but the birth of centuries-long genocide that resulted in the Karankawa losing their way of life. The critics are shocked that Rockport—a majority-white retirement community where Trump 2024 flags already flutter from pickup trucks and golf carts—is moving in the opposite direction. “I see this as kind of a renewal of the Confederate statues, except they’re going back another three hundred years to the conquistadors, who came in here and stole Native American land and wiped out an entire group of people,” said Hector Rodriguez, a 62-year-old Rockport lawyer. “It’s history, but it’s history that I would prefer not to have right in front of me,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have a nine-foot-tall fisherman catching a big redfish? That’s what people do here––they pay money to fish.”

Up and down the Texas coastline in recent years, controversial statues have been the subject of fierce debate. Thirty miles south of Rockport, in Corpus Christi, Native American activists pressured local authorities to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus in 2019. The statue, which remains in storage, had stood outside the Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center since 1992, the five-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage. Last year, the City of Beaumont took down a statue honoring Confederate soldiers and the City of Houston removed two Confederate statues, both of which had been on display for more than a century. There are also calls to remove Confederate statues from a prominent location in Galveston.

Dennis Nance, curator of the Galveston Art Museum, said that with the recent resurgence of social-justice movements there’s now an expectation that public art won’t appear to anyone to be “glorifying” troubling historical figures and will take a wider array of viewpoints into consideration. Though he believes there is a place for art that provokes discomfort, that work needs to be accompanied early on by a robust dialogue. “Projects backfire because public art is complicated, even when the artist has the best intentions,” Nance said. “Because art is inherently political, part of that dialogue should explore whether the work makes people feel welcome when they encounter it.”

The structures aren’t being erected in a vacuum, critics note. In the late seventies and early eighties, Seadrift, about fifty miles north of Rockport, was the site of repeated clashes between members of the Ku Klux Klan and Vietnamese refugees working in the shrimping industry. Today, Vietnamese communities are an integral part of the Texas coastline, but in the Rockport area, some residents of color say they’re still subject to intolerance. Ciji Medina, a 37-year-old Rockport native, said many Black and Latino residents are afraid to discuss racial injustice in public settings. Last September, Little Bay was the site of one of the year’s most raucous pro-Trump rallies, a multiday show of force that included a parade of flag-waving boaters and hundreds of golf carts. When she found out the statues were being placed in the same location, Medina assumed the art was designed to intimidate minorities. “They might as well just stick a Confederate flag in the ground and fly it beside the statues,” she said. “The message is, ‘This is our land. We’ve taken over. You don’t belong.’”

Medina, like many critics of the statues, is under the impression that the Karankawa figures will be submissively kneeling in the sand, a suggestion that Russell, who is still working out the details of the Karankawa statues, strongly denies. “Nobody is hiding from anybody and nobody will be cowering,” he said. “Whoever is saying that is totally misinformed. I’m surprised that someone already has knowledge of my plans before I do.” Luis Puron, the executive director of the Rockport Center for the Arts, said he’s been in touch with Russell from the project’s inception and believes the critics are misinterpreting the artist’s intentions, which, he maintains, are not political in nature. “Some people are maybe thinking that we’re celebrating colonial times, but I think we’re talking about an artist capturing a moment in time,” Puron said. “I think the title of the piece, and the work itself, is about telling a story.”

How to tell that story, and deciding where exactly it should begin, are questions that historians and artists have always wrestled with, according to Court Carney, a professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University. When an artist presents an abstract moment in history—such as an undocumented meeting between vastly different cultures—in a nonabstract way, there is a risk that the audience will approach it literally. “When that happens, the history lessons are likely to be lost or confused and simple politicization takes its place,” Carney said, suggesting that detailed signage offering historical context might help viewers understand the artist’s intent, an addition that Russell, when asked, endorsed as well. “In the case of the Rockport statues, this is a complicated series of stories that you’re putting in very uncomplicated terms, which could become problematic.”

Russell says the project was never meant to be a “social commentary,” but he isn’t entirely surprised that some critics have misinterpreted its intended meaning. Though he’s open to signage, he won’t be swayed, he says, by the pressures that are causing civic leaders to topple historical statues. “There’s a mass insanity right now where we’re destroying our cultural artifacts,” he said. “There’s a difference between celebrating these historical figures and doing what I’m doing, which is acknowledging that they were here.”

Yet Russell acknowledges that he hasn’t spoken with any Native Americans about the project. That doesn’t surprise Love Sanchez, a Corpus Christi resident and member of Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal Bend, an intertribal organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of Indigenous rights. Sanchez, a member of the Karankawa Kadla tribe, said there’s a widespread belief that the state’s Indigenous residents no longer exist. She traces this belief to a lack of representation in the news media and history textbooks, and the failure of both to communicate the reality of the violent nineteenth-century policies that forcefully removed Indigenous groups from their tribal lands, in Texas and elsewhere. It’s a belief, she said, that also makes it easier to avoid seeking out her community’s feedback when a statue is erected or a building is being erected upon a former burial ground.

Her group, she said, includes members of multiple tribes, including Karankawa, Lipan Apache, and Azteca, with roots that predate the arrival of Europeans. Sanchez said neither she nor anyone else in her group was consulted about the statues’ design or placement. Some group members would like to open communication with organizers of the “Cultural Interface” sculpture project, but others, including Sanchez, feel there’s no room for compromise. “For me, the priest represents assimilation, the conquistador represents slaughter, and the pirate represents trafficking and rape,” she said. “These are the things they were known to do. The statues don’t honor anything. They’re a painful reminder of what happened to our people.”

When I reached Russell by phone a few days later, he was packing up his first set of statues for their trip to a Fort Worth foundry to undergo bronze casting. I told him about Love’s comments and asked if he’d be open to speaking with Indigenous peoples about their concerns. He endorsed the idea. “As an artist, whenever you do anything, sooner or later there’s gonna be someone who has an idea of what you should’ve done instead,” he said. “But I’m always glad to talk to people.”