“The foundation was laid, the crane was there, everything showed up on time. The piece was lifted up, and it sat exactly the way it was supposed to…
It came in sections, we assembled it, and there it was. I saw it for the very first time. It was a great feeling. King of the World for a day…”.
This is how Terry Karpowicz describes an installation that went just perfectly—placing his Symbiotic Parallax in front of the Molecular Biology Building at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Karpowicz is one of four Chicago sculptors—with more than 150 commissions between them—who talked about the day-to-day rewards and frustrations that come with creating large-scale pieces for public and private buildings. The other artists are: John Adduci, who has made sculptures for the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, and many others; Richard Hunt, who has created more than 100 steel, stainless steel, and bronze sculptures for indoor sites, urban plazas, and large outdoor locations all over North America; and Christine Rojek, who uses aluminum to make brightly colored kinetic and interactive sculptures for a variety of clients.
In the most gratifying sculpture/architecture projects, strong leadership moves things along. Frustration builds when the client (usually an ill-assorted committee) postpones decisions repeatedly because everyone fears being blamed for a mistake.
Richard Hunt is currently developing a 35-foot-tall outdoor sculpture for the Heritage Millennium Building, a high-rise that’s going up on a prime site in downtown Chicago. The artist, who is working directly with the development team that hired the architect, calls this project “as good as it gets for a sculptor.” Hunt, the architect, and the landscape architect all have roughly equal status under the direction of the developer, who holds the purse strings.
A project “can go on forever,” Hunt adds, if a sculptor works with commissions made up of architects, politicians, and community representatives. “Whatever social skills, patience, and professional abilities you bring to the situation—you often have to use them to the full,” he says. “Most often, I’m given a site and told to make the best of it—not in just those words, but that’s the import.” He’s “been able to develop this as part of a way of responding creatively to an already existing, already designated site.” Occasionally, Hunt sells a big piece from his studio inventory and works to “give it a sense of belonging” when he installs it at the buyer’s site.
By the time John Adduci arrives on the scene, the architect has the building “pretty well conceived,” he says, so he deals mostly with the site manager and “generals underneath the architect,” including structural engineers. If he’s making an outdoor sculpture, he marries it to the building and the site. He may attach an indoor piece to the building structure, which means consulting with the site staff.
Karpowicz has had good experiences and bad. Sometimes community people and the architect (“much more revered” than the artist for some reason) simply tell him what to do. A community panel in Highland Park, Illinois, showed him a site and asked him where he wanted to place his sculpture. He prefers this approach. Rojek, who installs most of her work indoors, says that architects don’t always recognize how much impact a sculpture can have on a space. Sculptors must be “sensitive to what the architect is trying to say,” she states.
Some artists tell horror stories about community representatives who make annoying remarks about their work in meetings and demand frivolous changes. Karpowicz simply tells committees that his work is abstract and declares that “abstraction by itself is about subjective approach, where you bring your own history to it.” He does not take criticism personally and listens carefully to committee members to learn how his work is perceived.
Adduci calls community criticism “part of the territory” and says that he hears all sorts of things from passersby as he’s installing a piece. Most remarks come from people who ask whether tax dollars paid for the sculpture. Rojek wows committees in presentations by being very specific about what she wants. “I spell out very clearly what they’re going to get,” she says. “Because I fall in love with the piece while I’m designing it, I become a cheerleader for my work.” She’s never had people demand changes except for public safety, which is completely justified in her opinion.
All the artists say that building owners may not recognize that sculptures need maintenance. “There’s a sort of funny feeling about art being sacred in a way,” says Rojek, “like it can’t break down because it’s art.” According to Hunt, there’s “an obligation, in taking on a sculpture project, to ensure that the piece is safe and without maintenance problems.” But even his stainless steel sculptures must be “power washed now and then” because “birds do like to perch on sculptures.”
Adduci feels professionally responsible to make safe art that stands up to “people climbing on it, weather conditions, stuff like that.” This “goes beyond the basics of aesthetics,” he says. “It goes to the basics of logic.” Many clients think that “once a sculpture is in place, they can forget about it,” says Karpowicz. “My early work was in wood. I would put some wood pieces outside, maybe varnished—I took real good care of them. Later I go back and it starts to get gray, and I tell the client you have to take care of this like you would a boat.”
Rojek’s had the same experience with her indoor kinetic works which are installed with “elevators all around, escalators that break down, and people working on them constantly, but if your piece needs some maintenance, it’s like ‘What? A maintenance contract for a sculpture?’” Rojek repaints the indoor pieces and has repaired mechanisms on kinetic works. She designs large outdoor works so she can dismantle them easily and take sections back to the shop for maintenance.
When asked whether they prefer to site their work indoors or outdoors, the artists had different answers. “It’s easier to envelop people with the art if it’s indoors,” says Rojek. “Outdoors you’re really struggling to make an impact, especially if you’re in an open field. The things that look so huge in the studio look like little earrings out there.” Indoors she can be playful and use more color because she does not have to worry about the elements. Adduci has no preference. “Outdoors is nice,” he states, because a sculpture can make a dramatic difference to a site and people can walk all the way around it. “But you’ve got indoor environments that can be just as beautiful.”
Karpowicz wants his work “to go outside, specifically because you have the openness around it.” People “come to it because they want to, not because they’re forced into passing it as they go from one store to another.” The artist recalls the Druids “who made Stonehenge early on and the smaller rings in England before that.” Those were meeting places, he says, which were created with “what we now consider sculpture—very simple, elegant.” Karpowicz strives to convey this feeling in his outdoor work.
Hunt points out major differences between indoor and outdoor work. He considers wind, cold, and ice as he develops outdoor sculptures. Weather is not a factor with an indoor work, but a lobby site requires him to think about traffic flows. When he’s working indoors, Hunt sometimes must determine how to get his piece into the loading dock or front door. When all else fails, he makes the work in pieces and assembles it on site. He carefully reviews every site and may develop a piece differently, according to whether it goes indoors or out. “There are outdoor places that are somewhat constricted, say on a city street,” he says, “where the way someone approaches the piece doesn’t differ that much from indoors.” Outdoors can mean an urban space or a natural space: “The relationship of the sculpture to a landscape or sky or forest is different from a plaza in the middle of a town.”
Hunt thinks about how his sculpture may be glimpsed at longer distances—as “an axial point,” perhaps, or “something informal” such as seeing it from a path in a park. Perspectival views influence “the scale, the general attitude of a sculpture”—and there’s much more variation outdoors than in lobbies and conference rooms. If Hunt places a work where people can look down on it from a balcony or see it as they open a door into a space, this too affects its development. Sculptors deal with day-to-day financial realities—heating and electric bills, taxes, mortgage, and the like—but still have a passion for their art and may work in the red. “If I get a commission for $20,000,” says Adduci, “I have to figure out what kind of piece is going to fit within those parameters—what materials I can use, the scale I can use. “But doing a piece for something like Pier Walk, then it’s a labor of love because it’s coming right out of your behind,” he states. “You’re doing it because it’s a forum. There aren’t that many forums for us, and it’s a great opportunity.”
“There are times when you’re doing a commission,” Adduci continues, “and you have to prethink yourself and say: ‘I’m going to buy 2,000 pounds of aluminum and I only need 1,500 pounds.’” The extra 500 pounds goes on Adduci’s rack for use in a “labor of love” piece. “You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he says, “but it’s your Peter and Paul.”
Rojek has a hard time with “that thing about business.” She feels so flattered to have won a commission and she wants to do “such a good job” that she may go over budget and lose money. Tempted to build a $100,000 piece when the commission is only $20,000, she wonders what
the client will expect next time.
“Not only that,” says Karpowicz, “but where does the other $80,000 come from? What keeps the doors of the studio open? If you can sell the drawings of the piece, you can make it up, but for the most part $20,000 is $20,000. They’re not going to say: ‘This piece is so good that we’re going to kick in an extra $10,000.’ Doesn’t happen.”
True, but the artists say that they must remain active regardless. “You have no way of working on your aesthetics if you’re not working,” says Adduci. “You must keep that going.” But sculptors still should “use business sense because the products we make are expensive, the materials we use are expensive, and the process is expensive.”
When a sculptor goes over budget, clients rarely help. “Sometimes if you’re lucky,” says Hunt, “you can go back to the client if you have an open-ended contract with some contingencies. But I’ve certainly gone over budget. You live with it.” A good cost estimate improves the odds for the artist—and everyone has a system. “One of the hardest things for me to figure out is the time it takes to make a piece,” says Hunt. “The material is easy enough. You take the scale and work out that you’ll need so many feet of metal and a variety of [welding] consumables.” But Hunt can’t predict whether he’ll spend 100 or 200 hours on a task and how many assistants he may need. No matter how cautiously he hedges his bets, “it always seems to come out more hours.”
Karpowicz knows his monthly studio costs and can estimate materials. “Those are the criteria on which I base what I do,” he says. “I don’t think about time. A piece takes as long as it’s going to take. If it takes a year, it takes a year. You just want to make sure you can keep the doors open.” Adduci reviews a project, compares it to others he’s done, and estimates the “blocks of time” he’ll need. He adds a contingency, then estimates his materials. Studio costs, he says, “don’t fluctuate that much.” It’s harder for Rojek because she may create unique mechanisms for a kinetic piece, which she never uses again. She admits there’s a lot of guesswork in her estimates, but says that she’s “getting better at it.”
According to Hunt, estimating techniques are “pretty consistent among sculptors” because they talk to each other. On big projects, artists operate at a disadvantage, because they’re not licensed like architects and don’t have an organization such as the American Institute of Architects to create standard contracts for them. “Arts administration groups have made some of the art commission contracts fairly uniform from one state to another,” Hunt continues. This makes commissioning and payment more predictable, but artists still work by contracts that were written by arts administrators, lawyers, and insurors. Hunt would like a contract that enables artists to bill monthly for materials, expenses (photocopies, postage), and studio hours.
Sculptors have developed a strong community because they must share so much to ensure their survival. A sculptor just out of school often works for an established artist to learn technique and gain access to welding equipment and a studio. When sculptors encounter technical problems, they often get good advice from colleagues. And it makes sense for the community to share something such as a trailer that each artist may need just once or twice a year. “We’re all pushing a rock uphill,” says Adduci. “You learn something new all the time,” Karpowicz adds. Rojek likes the fact that she can relate to different types of people: “I can put on my suit, present my spiel, and then go into the shop with my dirty clothes.”
Karpowicz, who co-directed the annual Pier Walk exhibition for several years in Chicago, thinks that the best thing that came from it was the camaraderie. “It extended what was at one time a local community and made it a national and indeed an international community. There’s probably not a city in the country that you would go to that you wouldn’t know somebody in that show. I’m very happy to be a sculptor—there is a sense of community, people to sit down with after a hard day’s work and drink a beer with.”
“I just like to make stuff,” says Rojek. “I love to work with my hands.”
Victor M. Cassidy is a writer living in Chicago.
|Art in Architecture: A Chat with The General Services Administration
|I talked with Caroline Anne Fachay, Regional Fine Arts Administrator, and Michael Finn, Fine Arts Specialist, for the General Services Administration about public sculpture issues. They explained that artists are selected by an Art in Architecture panel, which typically includes a local arts professional, a community representative, a national art peer, a representative from the client agency, and AIA staff. The first panel meeting familiarizes everyone with the AIA program and the project. At the second meeting, the panel reviews upward of 100 artist portfolios and makes a short list. The final decision, which involves considerable GSA staff input, is confirmed at the third meeting.“Red flag issues with the panel include aesthetics, liability, and maintenance,” says Fachay. The GSA has a national artist database and considers whether an artist’s aesthetic is appropriate to the project and whether the artist has a good track record. The sculpture must be safe, and the GSA now wants a conservator on selection panels to help screen out proposals that could bring maintenance problems.Once the selection is made, the GSA would “like to get artists on board during the building’s design phase and have a real dialogue between the architect and the artist,” says Finn. “If the artist plans to put a mosaic in the floor, that floor will cost less to build and the money can be reassigned elsewhere. Same goes for window treatments.”There’s “a huge difference,” says Fachay, between siting a sculpture outdoors and indoors. Wear and tear can be “serious” in a plaza with numerous public events such as political demonstrations and farmers’ markets. People tape things to the sculpture. Delivery people chain their bicycles to it. Kids climb on it and slide down. An indoor site is more like a museum: people leave the sculpture alone.