Those walking the 100 block of Capitol Street in Charleston may not know they are passing the smallest and possibly the most distinctive piece of public art in the city.
Nestled in a nook to the north of the Gates Building, which houses The Palm Salon and Spa and The Squire Tobacconist, is Mortar Man - an approximately 2-by-4-inch mortar sculpture created by local artist Joe Mullins.
The Village District icon has been included in a list of about 47 pieces of public art being cataloged in the city, said Jim Gwinner, a conservator for McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory Inc.
Charleston leaders have contracted with the firm to catalog public art in the city.
Gwinner locates each piece, documents its condition and then makes a recommendation for care based on that condition. Gwinner was on Capitol Street Wednesday checking out Mullins' small piece.
"I really like Mortar Man," Gwinner said. "He's a whimsical piece that's a lot of fun."
Gwinner is documenting many different pieces of public art, from the murals in the East End to the bronze sculptures at the Capitol Complex. He said Mortar Man illustrates the concept that not all art has to be monumental.
"Artwork doesn't have to be expensive and massive to work," Gwinner said.
The little figure is perched about 12 feet above the sidewalk under a small ledge. He is amazingly detailed for such a small piece, Gwinner said. The small sculpture is that of a man who appears to be climbing out of the brick wall.
The size, location and endurance of the sculpture make it unique, Gwinner said. The piece was placed in the wall sometime around 1994, Mullins said.
Mullins, the sculptor who designed and supervised the construction of the Veterans Memorial at the Capitol Complex, placed the diminutive statue in the wall as a lark when he was repairing the bricks and mortar in the Gates Building facade.
Mullins, who was doing the work to make ends meet, said he was eating lunch one day when the idea came to him. He already had mixed some mortar when he decided to take a break.
The mortar was rather expensive, and Mullins said he didn't want to waste even the little ball that he had mixed. So, he crafted it into the upper torso of a man and placed it in a small gap between the bricks and the ledge. Mortar Man was born.
"And quite frankly I just forgot about him," Mullins said.
Someone spotted the figure hanging out over Capitol Street about two years later and the trail led back to Mullins, he said.
In terms of artistic merit, Mullins said Mortar Man probably ranks at the bottom of his work. But in terms of philosophical message and community recognition, it is at the top.
Mortar Man relays a specific philosophical message, Mullins said. In construction, brick and stone get the most credit for keeping a building together. But mortar holds the bricks and stones together and is vital in all construction, he said.
"I think Mortar Man is symbolic of mortar saying, 'I'm here, too, and I'm important,'" he said. "This represents mortar's desperate attempt at recognition."
Mullins also said a local media outlet once listed 10 things in Charleston that visitors should never miss. Mortar Man made the list while another, more prestigious example of his work - the Veterans Memorial at the Capitol - was excluded.
Mullins said the Veterans Memorial cost about $4 million to design and construct. Mortar Man cost about 69 cents.
Gwinner said Mortar Man adds character to the Village District. The professional art conservator has traveled all over the world inspecting art and has never seen anything quite like it.