Late last year I was invited to install the Ghost School at the new Kohler Experience Center, Los Angeles. Kohler Company provided an incredible spot to install the sculpture that I had made at the Kohler Factory, in Wisconsin, in 2015. For the next year it will be prominently featured in the window of their new flagship showroom in West Hollywood, California on Beverly Bvld.
Carving in Action
I recently worked on a project involving carving a simple moon face. I thought it might be fun to take a time-lapse video of the project. This is the very frantic result. Please enjoy seeing the carving process, and watch the Moon emerge from the wood. For a higher resolution video please click here.
Music by: Agrupacion Ilegal Los Imparciales “El Choclo”
Thanks for viewing,
When I was a kid in Colorado, my family would travel almost every weekend to my grandparents’ antique shop in Silver Plume or to the family cabin in Pine. Those drives into the Rocky Mountains always took us through tunnels that marked our ascent into a different world from the plains below. That memory played a role in my choosing the pedestrian underpass in the Sand Hills Prairie Park at Denver’s Stapleton Airport as the site for this installation with my friend and co-designer, Aaron Whelton. Located in a relatively cold, windy, and unwelcoming part of the park, this tunnel seemed like the perfect setting to create an inviting, engaging space. Our challenge was to develop a concept that related to the natural history of the area.
Long before Stapleton’s runways and facilities transformed the area into a busy urban landscape, this particular corner of the Denver metro area was covered in sand dunes. They were my inspiration for “Drift Inversion,” a 23′ x 128′ installation that turns the original landscape upside-down to create a surreal experience for any visitor who happens upon the underpass.
Design and fabrication
In a previous post I shared some of the preliminary design renderings that Aaron and I created for the project proposal. Once those were approved, we focused on working out the endless details with the City of Denver’s engineers, my engineers at IDE, and my fabricator Kurt Nordquist at DaVinci’s Workshop.
Each of the sculpture’s 258 aluminum “fins” is unique. To keep track of their specific locations, we assigned a number to each piece to identify its place in the length of the tunnel, and a corresponding letter to identify whether it went on the north or south side. These identifiers were added as each fin was water-jet cut, and we took great care to keep consecutive numbers in groups to make the installation process easier.
Once the cutting was complete, Jonathan Arreola, Juan Sanchez and Joshua Arreola, at Northwest Custom Auto Body in Burien did the painting.
While Jonathan finished the painting and we readied the fins for transport to Ship/Art in Denver for warehousing, Rio Grande Co. (also in Denver) was busy gathering all the hardware and fabricating the 1,548 galvanized steel brackets we would need for the installation. In the end, the project required nearly 12,400 individual elements (nuts, bolts, washers, bushings, and other hardware) including the fins, which, by themselves, weighed nearly 16,000 pounds.
Structural installation begins (despite the weather)
The pedestrian underpass that houses “Drift Inversion” provides a glorious window to the Rockies in the West and a portal for viewing incredible rainbows in the East. It also seemed to focus and intensify the weather we experienced during installation. Every kind of Colorado spring storm imaginable passed through during that two weeks: heavy snow and bitter cold, a downpour with jawbreaker-sized hail, steady rain, 80-degree days…you name it, we had it.
Work began on a frigid, windy Friday morning that evolved into a very snowy weekend. Despite the enormous challenges of working overhead in the biting cold, Mike Adcock of Adcock Concrete in Grand Junction, CO, and his helper, Alexandro, did an incredibly accurate job installing all of the structural elements that ultimately would support “Drift Inversion.”
Over three days, the crew installed 1,500 brackets and nearly 1,000 feet of Unistrut.
Final assembly begins
Once all the structural elements were in place, it was up to the Franklin family and some devoted friends to install the sculpture’s 258 fins. It was a truly epic process, supported from the sidelines by many folks bearing hearty lunches and words of encouragement, including my high school friends Chris Flores and Heidi Gartland, Bruce and Tricia Gallagher, my mom, and my sister in-in law, Brooke.
Two weeks later, after installing tons of aluminum and tightening thousands of nuts and bolts, “Drift Inversion” was complete. After two weeks of installing tons of aluminum, and tightening thousands of nuts and bolts, the project was complete.
A few more thanks
There were so many helping hands involved in this project. I acknowledged some people earlier in this post, but would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the invaluable support of these folks, too: My truly amazing wife, Joanne; the quintessential art professional, Barbara Neal; Alexander Abel with Adcock Concrete; and all of the members of the Park Creek Metropolitan District Public Art Committee who made this installation possible. Thank you all!
Drift Inversion made the cover of NorthEast Denver’s Newspaper, The Front Porch!
Read the article here:The Front Porch
…also enjoy a short video of Drift Inversion in Motion
Thanks to: Aaron Whelton, Kurt Nordquist, IDE Engineers, Barbara Neal, Denver City Councilman Christopher Herndon, Park Creek Metropolitan District, Denver Urban Renewal Authority, Civitas, Mortenson Construction, and all of my friends and family who supported this project and worked so hard to make it happen, and to my awesome wife Joanne.
This house of cards symbolizes the fragile cultural structure we build together in our societies, and the beauty within each part of it.
Ever since my wife and I moved to Seattle in 1993 there has only been one source for truly comprehensive coverage of local music and arts, that has been The Stranger, Seattle’s best free weekly paper. If you are looking for an event, no matter how obscure it’s in The Stranger. The Stranger has an independent minded perspective on anything and everything important happening in the city and the world, with a true sense of grit and intelligence. It’s this creative viewpoint that has always made it the final word in Seattle’s vibrant culture.
The digital version of this week’s Stranger can be seen here.
This is such an honor because of the feeling of acceptance in my local arts community it provides, something that has not always come easy for me.
This piece, The Cultural House of Cards, sits within the high barbed wire fence of The Green Hill School in Chehalis, WA, but it has refused to stay imprisoned. WIth a feeling of it having a life of it’s own this project has gained the attention of Hi Fructose Magazine, Montreal’s Mural Festival and now The Stranger. Its themes are very appropriate to the times we live in and the challenges before us a s a diverse society.
My wife Joanne, my kids, Mike Sweney, The Green Hill School, Kurt Nordquist, Brian Perry, Scott Wipff, Jonathan Areola, and Western Graphics all had important roles in making this Washington State Arts Commission happen.
Thanks to everyone that has enjoyed this project and seen the importance of the message about all of us contained within it,
I think every artist dreams of being in a gallery show in New York City. It’s a total stereotype, and one that I am not ashamed to say that I too have carried around for years. One I have carried around without much hope of realization or much action on my part to make it happen. I just kept working, following my imagination and thinking maybe someday. One day, late last Spring it happened, and I got invited to be in The Plant Show at the 99¢ Plus Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Simran Johnston curated the show and did a spectacular job. The 99¢ Plus Gallery, in a repurposed discount store, seemed like the perfect place in New York for my work. I started following them on Instagram and was thrilled to see that their previous opening had been shut down by the police. This opportunity was looking better all the time, and I had the perfect piece for the show. It was one of my favorites and was sitting in storage, waiting for just such a chance to be given a new life and purpose. Little did I know what would happen…
With gallery walls all painted green, and an intriguing cast of characters assembled, what Simran designed in the 99¢ Plus Gallery grew beyond what could have been imagined, and became a media sensation.
Congratulations Simi, and thank you for including me in such an awesome group and making dreams come true.
Please go on Instagram and check out #theplantshow to see all the great work, and for the entire surreal experience.
Press for the Plant Show:
I am currently working with Aaron Whelton on a new public art sculpture project for Sand Hills Prairie Park in the Forest Hills development in Stapleton. Not far from where I grew up and went to high school, this is an amazing opportunity to get back to my home town and get to practice my craft. What we are envisioning will transform an otherwise mundane space into something exceptional. This is a preview of what we have in mind.
The site for the project is this pedestrian underpass in Sand Hills Prairie park with Central Park Boulevard running over it.
The theme of the park is based on sand hill landscape formations that existed in the area before the building of Stapleton Airport. The concept emerged from the idea of sand formations. We designed a sculpture of sand dunes that will be approximately 116′ long and 23′ wide. The model looks like this.
The sculpture will be hung from the ceiling of the tunnel for a very surreal effect as you move through the space.
Rather than decorate the entrances to the overpass we wanted to transform the space inside the tunnel itself. The sculptural members will be painted a white to brighten the space and hopefully the whole effect will make it a destination to be experienced.
The tunnel is also oriented almost due east and west which at sunrise and sunset should allow the reflective nature of the sculpture change with the light and color at different times of the day and year.
We are right now finalizing the design and going through all of the steps for approval required by the various stakeholders. Keep your fingers crossed and we should be installing in the early fall 2016.
Why make a ceramic school of fish?
The concept for “The Ghost School” came from an urge to make a hanging sculpture that captured the dense swarming beauty of a school of herring surrounded by predators. Why do these dense schools of bait fish form? Protection from predators. Since we eat what eats them, it’s these cloud-like schools of fish that we look for when salmon fishing out on the Salish Sea with my family. It’s also the kind of formation of fish that countless predators large and small seek around the world to feed on in large lakes, seas, and oceans. Flocks of sea birds will also give away where these schools of fish are as they circle and dive to feed on them.
Bait fish or forage fish like herring, anchovies, sardines, eulachon, smelt, and alewives form a vital link between the tiny creatures they feed upon, like plankton, and the larger fish we eat, like salmon. They also support creatures like diving birds as well as whales, sharks, and many other creatures. These species are under a lot of pressure from overfishing and a number of other factors and their numbers are declining rapidly. This is the case in my neighborhood, and as they go, so do the birds and fish that feed on them. That is why this art project became “The Ghost School.” I created it to add voice to the alarm and to honor these small fish that are beginning to disappear from our waters.
Thankfully, as awareness of the issue grows, these fish have been getting some good press lately. There is a great short film made by Jesse Nichols, a talented young man from my hometown, that explains the importance of forage fish and some of the action being taken to preserve them in Western Washington. To the north, First Nations groups led by the Heiltsuk in British Columbia are leading protests agains commercial over-fishing and closing their own vital fishery to try to maintain the viability of herring stocks and to raise a greater awareness to the decline of these precious resources. Also, National Geographic recently did two articles about the struggles facing fish like these, which can be found here and here.
How I Made the “Ghost School”
To make the Ghost School I started with seven carved fish and two carved sharks. Each fish was a different size and had a different curved form. These were then molded, cast, fired, recast and fired again to create 16 different sized fish molds which provided the needed variety for the natural look of “The Ghost School.” Here are photos of the process:
During my peak production my goal was to cast sixteen fish twice a day. This yielded around twenty seven good fish, as I would consistently lose several when releasing them from their molds, due to broken fins and sometimes full-on collapsing.
Support structure – or, what’s it hanging from?
I needed a structure to hang the fish from, one that could carry the significant weight of the number of fish it took to take to create the school. The school is very heavy, as all the fish and sharks are made from the same vitreous china that all ceramic Kohler products are made from (resident artists work within the factory and use all the same production materials). The structure also needed to work with the water/school of fish theme. So I enlisted my public art team of Arron Whelton and Kurt Nordquist to help design the interlocking plywood grid to support the school of fish.
I designed the lower surface of the support structure with a sculptural ripple effect that is similar to my last couple of public art projects. Visually, it serves to places the fish underwater as well as relate it to my greater body of work. The structure was hung from a steel beam used in the studios for operating chain hoists for lifting heavy objects.
As the fish were cast and cleaned up on a daily basis, one batch was run through the drier while another batch was run through the kiln. I assembled the school slowly, adding a few fish at a time every couple of days, as they were ready.
Each fish is suspended from pairs of holes to ensure they do not freely rotate. The fish are supported on 250 lb braided test fishing line with antique venetian glass beads.
It took three months and 468 fish to complete the Ghost School. None of this would have been possible without the support of my amazing wife Joanne, who continues to support my crazy ideas all these years, and who took care of everything at home while I was away, most importantly our three beautiful busy daughters.
The associates at the factory, whom I count as good friends, were a huge help and pleasure to work with. Also thanks to the people at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, especially Kristin Plucar. Shari McWilliams, the program tech, was indispensable. The piece will remain in Wisconsin as part of the Kohler Company collection and displayed in one of their hospitality properties for public viewing. I would like to thank Laura and David Kohler and Kohler Company for making this possible.
Finally, none of the Arts/Industry residencies would be possible without the kindness, generosity, and great vision of Ruth Kohler, who started the residency program over 40 years ago and has brought new and greater possibilities to artists like me ever since.
PS – Side Project
Because every residency needs at least one side project! “Ghost TV” is a collaboration with Paul Roehrig, the caster that makes this large flushable hospital ware sink known as a “TV.” His work station was near mine and he wanted to collaborate on a piece of artwork. He has been working at Kohler for nearly as long as I have been alive and is a master of the most difficult pieces, and I was honored to be given this to work on.