Last night I was sitting under an eight-foot tall hand. This hulking mass of metal, attached to an 11-foot forearm of crisscrossing steel, has never looked more beautiful. I gently push a pinky finger the size of my leg and watch the monster precariously swing over me. I am not scared of being crushed. Maybe because I know the sculpture is chained to two hefty I-beams in the museum’s ceiling. I trust the rigging of alpinist extraordinaire Niels Davis, and moreover the rigging’s approval by Andy Tirado, the Dr. Frankenstein of this metal monster. More likely though, I do not fear death by gravity from this sculpture, because it has already killed us. Sorry for the melodrama, but completing this sculpture became one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
It all started last February when Andy Tirado, supervisor and guru of the 3-D Arts Shop, developed the concept for a show offered to him by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Andy wanted to lift art’s curtain of mystery concealing the underlying process, and display this process to the public. To achieve this, Andy spent his nights from the end of February through mid-May completing a series of large-scale drawings, all while maintaining his fulltime job with the College during the day. This was a massive undertaking, as he completed 23 individual drawings, averaging a size of 8×8 feet. Andy, Niels, and I installed these pieces in the Fine Arts Center mid-June, setting the stage for a spectacle of process and all of it’s pitfalls.
The stage was a 20×20 foot work surface that we assembled in the middle of Andy’s exhibit. On this surface, we spread out four worktables, a drafting table, and a metal break. Museum-goers were free to walk around the exhibit appreciating Andy’s drawings, while also observing us building the sculpture in the center of the exhibit. Despite our best efforts to organize, the work area quickly became cluttered with tools, a coffee maker, metal strapping, and a graveyard of comically phallic finger prototypes.
Over the course of July and August, we developed the working prototype of a finger that would achieve a naturalistic range of motion, controlled by six cables each. Andy maintained his nocturnal work schedule to fabricate the underlying steel structure, while I would assemble the parts in the museum during the day. I often felt like a performance art piece myself under the gaze of the exhibit’s visitors.
At the start of school in September, we had two weeks until the sculpture’s unveiling and little more than a collection of fingers and framework. With Andy’s full time job and my return to block one frenzy, it was clear that we needed to start managing our expectations and compromise in order to fulfill the commitment. Andy adapted his plan of a 50-foot-long horizontal arrangement of two hands reaching out, to a single hand hanging from the ceiling. While the drop in scale was disappointing, the kinetic motion of the sculpture was a priority and deserving of our full attention.
I had been fleshing out a mechanical design that would simultaneously control all 28 cables of the hand, but it soon became clear that my design only worked in a theoretical physics playground where things don’t break and attachments are seamless. So with a week left, Andy called in a fixer of sorts, A.G. Werschky, a mechanical engineer who was kind enough to devote his free time from launching satellites to bailing us out. My design was quickly boiled down to its core concept, which Andy adapted and fabricated out of metal, while A.G. threw together some circuit boards and an electric actuator motor that would control it all.
Come the unveiling on Sept. 12, we had finished. The sculpture looked like a hand, and was kinetic, albeit slowly. Seeing the sculpture hanging by itself without the sprawling work area I was confronted with contradicting emotions. Superficially I felt an immense relief, as my last few weekends had been dominated by 12-hour workdays, and for now, the hand was working. Strangely though, I felt a tinge of dread about moving on. Over the past three months I had become seriously invested in this hunk of metal, and the thought of no longer having a project to define my free time away from class scared me. I was proud of this monumental feat of design that we figured out step by step in full view of the public. However, I was also disappointed that the original design over was twice the size and many times faster moving.
These fleeting emotions have given way to something all the more powerful in the past few weeks. The knowledge that I have gained from this experience has changed my understanding of art. The stereotype of an artist is an inherently skilled person that is easily able to conceive work on command and magically produce this work without breaking a sweat. I have learned that this inherent skill is for the most part irrelevant to success. Art cannot be produced without simple hard work. All of the far-reaching talents that Andy has are useless without the incredible amount of hours he employs those skills. This sculpture wasn’t built out of a strong concept, but out of millions of small cuts on our hands and gallons of coffee consumed after midnight. Moreover, you can work until you expire, but in the end, compromises are necessary to truly realize a concept. It is ironic that compromises are key to meeting commitments, but that is the reality I have discovered. Compromising does not equate failure, but rather enables success. Every time I have revisited the sculpture, up until last night as we began taking the show down, has been more beautiful, and I have been more thankful for taking part in this adventure. I am incredibly grateful for the funding provided to me by the Venture Grant Committee and Dean’s Office. Most of all, thank you to Andy Tirado for allowing me to constantly mess up, show up late, explore, and learn.