Forum: Roughing It: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Sculpture Symposia

Brian Monaghan, Chicagoscape, 2003. Steel, 12 x 20 x 10 ft.

Symposia are filled with the energy that artists often need to refresh their creative “batteries.” These experiences force us into unique situations that require the kind of “out of the box” thinking conducive to the creation of new sculpture. Last winter, while I was looking out over my new outdoor studio space in New Carlisle, Indiana, I began thinking of other outdoor studios where I had attended sculpture symposia.

Two symposia came to mind. One was held in Chicago in the fall of 1985 along Printer’s Row. I attended the other one, held in the fall of 1991 in the Republic of Georgia, with fellow Chicago sculptor Terrence Karpowicz. This two-month symposium was held in Rustavi, which is just south of the capital, Tbilisi. In reminiscing about the vitality that these symposia brought to my work, I found myself longing to participate in such a symposium again. And with my new studio space, it seemed fitting that I should be the host.

In the early planning, my proposed symposium seemed quite simple: invite five to eight sculptors to spend a week at my studio at the end of August. During that time we would create some new work and enjoy the unique kind of fellowship that only artists know.

Mike Helbing, Skynet with Objects, 2003. Stainless steel, 5 x 22 x 6 ft

My outdoor workspace is less than a couple of hours east of Chicago. It is surrounded by prize corn and soybean fields and provides ample access to hardware stores and lumber yards. On the nearby campus of Purdue University North Central, a rolling expanse of more than 300 beautifully landscaped acres, fellow sculptor/curator S. Thomas Scarff, along with the university’s marketing director, Judy Jacobi, had created an outdoor sculpture exhibition. In the four years since its beginning, the show had evolved into a distinctive cultural landmark of both the Purdue North Central campus and the entire region, and it was time, this year, to take the exhibition one step further.

I told Tom of my plan to host my own symposium and asked if we could display the sculptures on the nearby Purdue campus. He was excited about the idea and presented the plan to the university. The chancellor supported it enthusiastically. With a venue and some much-needed funding, the symposium was about to be born.

Tom and I decided we should invite sculptors who were good friends and who had worked in the kinds of materials that would survive the harsh winters of the Lake Michigan snow belt. The chosen sculptors were mostly from Chicago. Mike Helbing would be working on a stainless steel piece. Derick Malkemus and Pat McDonald planned to work in cast concrete and steel. Terrence Karpowicz was combining granite and steel in his piece. Bob Emser’s work was to provide an interior environment for the observer, and so he was hoping to experiment with some new materials. Finally, the two senior citizens of the group, New York sculptor Richard Heinrich and I, both fabricated pieces from one-inch steel plate. With the rental of portable welders, along with my 18-ton Grove crane and forklift—pretty much all the tools we could think of—and with our plans, maquettes, and materials assembled, we were ready to go.

Barry Tinsley, Springville Portal, 2003. 18 x 10 x 3 ft.

When the sculptors arrived Sunday evening, we wasted no time in catching up with each other. Instead, we grilled some food, popped open some cold ones, and spent the evening sharing our plans and sculptural ideas.

August is usually a hot and humid month in the Midwest, and this year was no exception. Mosquitoes and other flying nuisances succumbed to our somewhat effective bug sprays, and thoughts of childhood camping experiences crossed our minds. A major thunderstorm came through in mid-week and took out the electricity for several days. With some quick thinking, we immediately dedicated one of our welder/generators to power the refrigerators. After all, we could take turns welding but warm beer was unheard of.

The power outage also meant no power to the water pump. Fortunately, I had ordered a port-a-potty to relieve the use of my rural septic system. It was now a lifesaver. Speaking of lifesavers, the in-ground swimming pool that came with the house was just that. Given that we were seven hot, stinky guys with no air conditioning, the chilly water was a blessing.

Not surprisingly, these events revived thoughts of some of the experiences I had encountered at the symposium in Soviet Georgia, where electrical power had been hit or miss and hot water rare. The great thing about the pioneer spirit thrust upon us was that without lights, we had a lot of time to sit through candlelit evenings, talking, thinking, and solving issues of the day. Ideas flew back and forth, and we enjoyed some of the best give and take about the arts of life and sculpting.

As the week wore on, several other sculptors joined us to lend a helping hand, take a dip in the pool, share some food, and join our evening talks, slide shows, and critiques. Some of these sculptors were working on sculptures that also would be exhibited at the Purdue North Central campus. Jessica Swift was adapting two stained glass works into freestanding pieces for interior light-bathed windows in Purdue’s Technology Building. Brian Monaghan was using large rolled steel tubing and curved steel I-beams to create a piece to be displayed on the highway “drive-by gallery,” as it has come to be known. John Bannon was creating a complex, interactive neon sculpture, which promised to add drama to the highway, especially during the nighttime, when thousands of students commute to campus for class.

John Mishler and Phil Shore contributed existing sculptures, and Sherry Giryotas re-configured a 1,500-pound beeswax installation resembling a fortress, its fragrance drawing the curious to a site in the library. Michele Goldstrom contributed a “community” of five bronze hemoglobin cells. All of these new works joined some 15 pieces already on campus by Tom Scarff, Steve Hokanson, Michele Goldstrom, John Adduci, Michael Young, Dessa Kirk, Rob Lorenson, and David Nelson, as well as the brightly painted Alexander’s Circus by the late Zelda Werner.

The symposium experience was a lot like graduate school, except that you now have all those years of experience to really appreciate the fact that your only responsibilities consist of working, eating, and sleeping. The symposium isolates you from the real world for a short period of time and in doing so, allows you to focus on your work and the fellowship of other sculptors with diverse ideas and methods of working. Like Thoreau’s Walden Pond, this nine-acre wooded area gave us time to reflect, re-energize ourselves, and come together in the spirit of cooperation. It was truly an exceptional week and experience.

With the coordination and cooperation of curator Tom Scarff and Purdue North Central’s exceptional physical plant and maintenance crews, the pieces were installed. On October 9th, the university’s Odyssey 2003–04 exhibition opened, and the fruits of our labors debuted to a tremendously enthusiastic community. The show continues for one year and can be visited on the Web at <> or in person by contacting Judy Jacobi at 219.785.5593 or at <>.