Alumni Create Invincible Cat for Public Art Installation Project Addressing Illegal Dumping

By Tom McLaughlin

Approaching the area of Whitman Avenue and Pershing Street in Camden, a larger-than-life animal form comes into view. The once-forgotten grass lot here is now home to Invincible Cat – a majestic panther whose gaze is ready to engage the senses and imaginations of viewers.

The Invincible Cat is one of six art installations featured in A New View – Camden – a Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded public art installation project.

The 36-foot long, 7-foot tall, and 10-foot wide sculpture, made with a structural steel armature and repurposed black car hoods, is one of six art installations featured in A New View – Camden – a Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded public art installation project that transforms vacant lots formerly used for illegal dumping into community placemaking sites. A related all-virtual exhibition is on display through Sunday, Oct. 31, in the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA) Stedman Gallery.

“The panther is this beautiful, powerful, agile creature – and panthers roar,” explains production manager Lisa Adler, who created the panther with her husband and lead artist Don Kennell, and their team at DKLA Design in Santa Fe. “It is the perfect metaphor for Camden, a city that is roaring back to life.”

The sculpture was completed and ready to ship last year when the COVID-19 pandemic threw the proverbial wrench into the works. The rugged cat then became an adopted company pet, surviving all four seasons in DKLA’s studio parking lot.

While it was a “real treat,” say the creators, they are ready to release the big cat into the world. However, Kennell explains, the panther – made to be as accessible as possible – isn’t truly a finished product until viewers pause and meet it face-to-face.

“It’s not until you get up close and see emblems and other details that people stop and realize that these car hoods have been transformed. It leads to a deeper inquiry,” says Kennell.

The arrival of Invincible Cat marks a triumphant homecoming for Adler and Kennell, who discovered a common love of socially conscious art – and each other – as graduate students at Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Adler and Kennell applaud the curators of A New View – Camden – a collaboration among the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, and the City of Camden – for envisioning how to transform illegal dumping sites into transgenerational spaces that can serve the community.

They explain that the black panther – a longtime pet project of the company that was waiting for the right venue – is emblematic of DKLA Design’s mission to activate public spaces by bringing nature into human consciousness.

“The goals of the curators very much align with our goals as artists,” says Adler. “We are about trying to create something that people identify with, give people heart, and bring people out into a space that they may never have experienced.”

Founded by Adler and Kennell in 2015, DKLA Design has been commissioned to create numerous public and private projects throughout the United States and Canada. The first animal that they made from car hoods was a Blue Gorilla for a show called Second Nature at the Philadelphia Zoo.

One of their recent projects was a 35-foot tall polar bear made from recycled car hoods that went on an international tour, making a stop at the zoo. They are also in the process of creating a camel for Google that will be displayed in an interior courtyard at the company’s new corporate campus in Mountain View, Calif.

The arrival of Invincible Cat marks a triumphant homecoming for Adler and Kennell, who discovered a common love of socially conscious art – and each other – as graduate students at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Kennell was earning a master of fine arts degree at Mason Gross School of the Arts and Adler a Ph.D. in political science.

The 36-foot long, 7-foot tall, and 10-foot wide sculpture is made with a structural steel armature and repurposed black car hoods.

Kennell’s first public art project was in Camden in summer 1994, when he teamed with another artist to lead a theater puppet-making workshop for Camden youth.

Adler and Kennell’s first art collaboration followed a year later when they created an art car commissioned by Art Matters of New York City. As Kennell recalls, he had been introduced to the idea of turning cars into mobile artworks in his native Houston, home of the world’s largest annual art car parade.

“There was this ethos there of getting your art out of the gallery and into the street,” he recalls. “I love that concept of a general, public audience.”

As luck would have it, Adler was visiting Kennell one evening when someone broke the window on her old, rusted-out Tercel. Rather than throw out the broken glass shards, they glued them onto the back bumper, spelling out the word “Inspire.”

“That kicked it off; we were madly in love and decided to drive around the country,” Adler says with a laugh.

The interactive, mobile art event traveled the country in the summer of 1995, zigzagging from New Jersey to California, to Vermont, and then back to New Jersey. Along the way, they popped into thrift stores and yard sales to buy paints, glue, and knickknacks, and covered every square inch of the car’s exterior with a map chronicling their travels.

The car naturally grabbed people’s attention and became an experiment in making a community of strangers. The couple took their pictures with the car, then got their addresses and mailed them the photos.

“Keep in mind that this was before the age of digital cameras and social media,” says Adler. “People just loved it.”

It was during that dreamlike summer when Adler and Kennell first pondered the idea of becoming collaborating career artists.

In 2000, Adler and Kennell moved to Santa Fe to raise their two daughters – Cayenne, 25, and Ruby, 20 – and immerse themselves in the city’s thriving arts community. Kennell maintained a career as an artist and Adler taught at the College of Santa Fe.

Several years later, Adler led several community initiatives that connected students with local businesses, nonprofits, and community development projects. During this time, the couple co-taught classes on the intersection of art and society.

After a few left turns and rights, Kennell and Adler have arrived, using their artistry to move viewers – especially children, they note – and consider nature beyond urban landscapes.

“Children are open to making that connection, and an experience like that can really launch a child in a million ways,” says Kennell. “On the simplest level, they’ll know that the world is full of possibilities – and they are active agents involved in that process.”

And just as they did with the art car more than 25 years ago, they strive to bring people together – a focus, they note, which is needed now more than ever.

“COVID has been all about keeping people apart,” says Adler. “We are asking for people’s most precious resource – their time – and hope that they share in this experience together.”

Additional information on the location of each art installation and A New View – Camden can be found at anewiewcamden.com.

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