SUSPENDING STEEL CLOUDS
Houston Arts Alliance
So you’ve scored a big public art commission in the neighborhood of seven figures. You’re quite proud of your accomplishment. Naturally, you break out the champagne, call a few friends, throw yourself a rowdy party and then . . .
If you’re sculptor Ed Wilson, who was awarded a significant public art commission that appends more personality to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the next steps aren’t as traditionally artsy as one may think. Moreover, the next steps deal with an aspect of installing a hefty piece that will never be visible or noticeable— if all the components work as they’re supposed to.
Exciting? Yes if you’re someone who gets adrenalized when thinking about physics. Wilson is one of those people.
“Once we received permission and finalized the contract, the first order of business is to meet with architects and engineers to figure out just how to suspend the piece,” Wilson says.
“In big public art, there’s engineering to consider. Even if it’s a free standing smaller piece, you still have to take into account wind loads, foundational strength and other things to make sure it won’t fall over on someone.”
With the help of a collaborative team that included representatives from WHR Architects, Wilson and friends devised a plan. While Wilson’s initial concept included a network of catwalks above the ceiling, the revised plan proposes seven hanging points, what the crew calls “columns,” each with its own winch (a lifting apparatus with some type of chain, rope or chord and a rotating drum) to facilitate lowering parts of the sculpture separately for maintenance and cleaning. Because standard winches couldn’t handle the job, special devices had to be custom designed for this artsy application.
Each reinforced “column” will hold one of the 14 cloud-and-bird modules that compose the work. Some columns will support one module, others two and some three — the aesthetics of the piece driving the distribution of the units. One column, however, will be responsible for bracing four modules together weighing roughly 875 pounds. At approximately 200 pounds per module, the complete mobile is estimated to weigh 3,000 pounds. The support system is conceived to uphold eight times the weight of the sculpture.
“Engineering is about bringing my vision to life,” Wilson says. “I see my piece as one spiral reaching toward space — a cycle that’s organic, perhaps an optimistic swirl.”
Engineering also comes into play as Wilson prepares to shape the perforated steel sheets into the sculptural elements.
“If you take a metal sheet, it flops easily,” Wilson explains. “But if you form it in such a way where you create ‘beams’ (imagine a mountain range or a star fish), the shape becomes extremely sturdy.”
Wilson loves solving these kinds of problems. Big concept first, he says, then comes the fun part.
“The difference between painting and sculpture is gravity,” Wilson adds. “In sculpture, you always have to deal with creative challenges when it comes to production and installation — and I enjoy that challenge as much as all aspects of the creative process.