I was asked to submit a proposal for a large hanging sculpture to be installed in the lobby of a new hospital being constructed here in Louisville, KY. They were looking for something that had "clean, modern lines" and "promoted a sense of healing". I thought about a walk in the woods- that's where I like to go to heal my brain.
I had never made a hanging sculpture before, but my terrible colored pencil drawing must have convinced them that I knew what I was talking about (or, nobody else entered a proposal).
I was given five months to have it all figured out and installed. So, with a head full of optimism and an ass full of pucker, I began.
(...btw, did you know that if you are going to do work in a hospital you have to get a TB test? I am glad to say I am TB free).
I started this whole idea thinking that it would be cool if I could make everything move. Spin lazily around and give a different look to whomever was staring at it. It had to be good looking from below (the first floor) and from the side (the waiting room on the second floor balcony). I wanted it to look a little different throughout the day and give the viewer something to watch. Hospitals can be a stressful place. I was hoping to make something that might help alleviate that a little bit.
Interior air currents are difficult to predict. There are hardly any gusts of wind to help push anything around. Two vents were to be installed between the first and second floors along the balcony wall and I was told I could manipulate the direction of the air through the face plates (similar to the vents that most of us have in our homes). But- in a section of a room that is 28 feet tall and 17 feet wide, would two vents be enough to move anything? The only way I knew to figure that out was to build it.
...and make it as light as humanly possible.
I bought sheets of copper and cut out leaf shapes with an oxygen acetylene torch. It cooked the edges and turned the copper pretty colors. A few friends and I wrapped each one of the 500(!) copper leaves in brass wire.
Then I made my oldest daughter sit and find the balance point and solder a brass split ring to the backside of each and every one of them. (child labor laws are less stringent when they're your kids).
It took me about a week to figure out how to make the actual mobiles. The first ones I made looked like copper pom poms- they were terrible. So, I read a couple books. One on Alexander Calder (and that just made me feel really inferior) and another called "Making Mobiles" by Bruce Cana Fox.
I probably shoulda started with that one...before I submitted my proposal.
They spin lazily around, which was what I wanted them to do (that doesn't always happen).
I made about 40 of these to hang from the large copper and glass branches.
...as a side note, if anyone would like to hire me to make about a hundred of these to hang in a large room with tall ceilings, it might be the coolest thing ever.
The Coolest Thing Everrrr.
Glass should be sparkly. (technical term).
One of the best ways to achieve maximum sparkliness (technical term) is to give the glass a little curve. It helps to catch whatever available light there is while giving the illusion of movement. It also helps to soften the edges (nice when handling the glass so as to not shave off important finger parts).
Three different shades of green. The smallest pieces in a young spring green (and pink). Medium sized leaves were done in a rich pine green and I used an adventurine green for the largest leaves. (the adventurine reflects a bit of sparkle (more technical term) which is important at night when there isn't anything but the the lights in the ceiling to illuminate the piece)
This was the first kiln load. I thought that 750 of these glass leaves would be sufficient.
I would find out later that I was incorrect.
which is a lot to be wrong by.
...meanwhile, at the studio I was making the armature for the branches. Using copper pipe and brass rod, I made tree limbs...slowly.
There were 6 branches total ranging from 4 1/2' to 7 1/2'.
The process included cutting a bunch of metal rod (leaving razor sharp edges) and soldering them together (leaving tiny branding irons).
Every time I reached into the limbs I would come out with a slice or burn. One time I heard an actual sizzle of hot metal to my neck.
I cursed a whole lot while making this thing. I even made up a few new ones.
I also learned to wear safety glasses all of the time.
(because eyeballs and stabby hot metal parts= shudder).
Each of those (eventual) 1350 pieces of glass had to be wrapped in copper wire so I could solder them to the armature.
Quite honestly, I had no idea how to get this done. That's a whole lotta leaves. Twice the amount I thought I was going to need to make.
My wife suggested to offer food in return for work.
16lbs of Cuban Pork later, about 40 people volunteered to work in my backyard Suburban Sweatshop.
I was completely floored by the response. Some took to it pretty quickly and stepped up as trainers and did quality control. I had some folks take boxes of glass leaves home with them and bring them back later in the week- and then request more.
Then again, I do barbeque a pretty good piece of pork.
I decided to wrap all of the branches in some braided copper wire to give the branches a "skin" (I guess that would be called bark, eh?)- you know, because we were running out of time and really, how much more stressed can you really get?
I tallied it up- it took a little over 3 miles of copper wire to wrap those six branches.
My hands were green for a week.
...but it was pretty. And I left the copper unfinished so it will tarnish over time. Just something else to watch over the next few years.
...it all looked like this.
(except the places where it didn't).
I remember the week before worrying about how to get everything how to balance out- I was having problems getting the branches to stay level. My plan to even out the weight of the large branches by hanging the smaller copper mobiles was not working well. I thought I would have to start adding lead to make up for the weight difference which I didn't want to do because lead is heavy and, like I said before, in order to move around inside it needed to be as light as possible. By happy accident, I figured it out. I can't tell you how ridiculously relieved it made me. It wound up making the install way easier and sooooo much less stressful.
I'm not gonna tell you how. I want you to experience that feeling all on your very own if you decide to make your own tree.
We finished with two days to spare before install. This had never happened before.
Much like me, it has a beauty that moves and doesn't photograph well.
(unlike me, it's because it's so delicate)
The big glass branches were supposed to spin really slowly and the little copper leaf mobiles were supposed to spin a little more- but just how much moving air is in a big hospital lobby?
Apparently, just enough.
You don't notice the big branches moving unless you watch them for a while. The copper leaf mobiles catch occasional drafts from the doors opening and closing and swirl around lazily from the vents in the wall where the air kicks on and off.
You can look at the whole thing one minute and 15 minutes later it's all in a different spot.
Aside from some little boy that dropped his lego car from the balcony that caused more than a few to run for cover (I just stood there and made the immediate decision to just let it take me), the opening was a big success.
I invited my Suburban Sweatshop crew to the public opening.
I forget that this isn't "work" sometimes- that people don't find the chance to make a whole lot of things. The pride they had in having a part to play was pretty awesome and they felt the satisfaction of having the chance to share in the success. I don't know if I would have been able to wrap all of those leaves without the help- but I definitely know that having the help made the entire project better and way more fun.
I get the warm fuzzies thinking about it.
I learned a ton making this piece. I would do a few things differently having the chance to do it again, but I hafta say- especially after looking at the original rough sketches- it came out way better than anyone expected.
I love it when that happens.
I have a crew of people ready to help with another project...
Willow tree, anyone?
Let me know what you think! We're still making stuff down here- sign up for our newsletter to see the new projects as they get finished up and keep us in mind if you have something special you'd like made for your place. Thanks for taking the time to come by.