In the spring of 2006 I received a call from Karen Weltchek Mueller, an alumna active with the Friends of Harvard and Radcliffe Rowing. She had seen photos of the bronze “Ted Anderson” sculling hands trophy I created for Cambridge Boat Club and USRowing, and wanted to commission a sculpture in honor of the centennial of Weld Boathouse. After discussions on site with her and Liz O’Leary, however, we agreed that possibilities for a bronze were limited: the boathouse already had a large bronze bust of George Walker Weld, and the only remaining spaces for artwork were the brick walls in the entrance foyer, or the exterior plinths above the front door.
I suggested that what might be artistically more impressive would be a suspended piece in the sky-lit barrel-vaulted ceiling space of the building’s second floor. Karen encouraged submitting a preliminary proposal outlining the three possibilities to the Friends meeting in late May, to determine whether there was support for anything at all, and any one idea in particular. The Friends approved a commissioned sculpture, and expressed interest in the most daring project of the suspended glass.
Upon further reflection, I abandoned both the bronze and plinth options, rejecting the former as uninteresting (nothing would work in the foyer except relief plaques, lost on the dark brick), and the latter as unwise (vulnerable to theft and vandalism). The suspended glass I felt would be aesthetically the most appropriate and innovative possibility, and one that would flow with the existing space’s structure. Indeed, I was concerned from the beginning to generate a design harmonizing with the building’s strong classic architecture, formal symmetrical design and traditional materials of muted tones (stucco, brick, plaster, slate, glass, copper, wood). I wanted to create art that – while not necessarily that of 1906 – would neither be pointedly and jarringly modern, nor anything that would appear quickly dated: it should still be a natural and elegant fit in another hundred years. I was also determined not to interfere with the architect’s achievement of creating a space that appears far larger than it actually measures, so issues of scale were paramount.
I was further aware of needing to produce art embodying only the beautiful elements of the sport uniting all who have rowed there. Weld originally served as the boathouse for Harvard freshmen and the University’s scullers. While the freshmen now row at Newell, the scullers remain, joined by the House crews, graduate school crews and, of course, Radcliffe. Any representational figurative art would invite various problems, hence my decision to create a work solely concentrating on the play of light and water.
An image I have long loved is the trail left on water’s surface by a single shell. I chose this not from personal bias but for the pattern’s simplicity, clarity and elegance (an eight, no matter how well rowed, leaves a terrific mess). There is the constant straight wake of herringbone wavelets coming off the stern, the spreading lines of the bow wake, and the pairs of puddles: tight whorls reminiscent of a mushroom in cross-section when the oar first leaves them, they settle and widen in concentric rings while the central double vortexes persist. The single’s path also provides the appropriate symbolism and visual embodiment of the commission’s focus: a celebration of history’s journey through time, the continued existence of that which has gone before, and the widening ripple effect of a past still connected to our present.
The title “Endurance”, realized part way through the final installation in an on-site conversation with visiting friends John Flory and Chris Stetson, reflects this notion of on-going existence, as well as the nature of the competitive sport itself. I should add parenthetically my affection for the alternate title, also suggested during the installation by Jerry Murphy: “A Clam’s Eye View of a Shell.”
I presented the revised proposal for glass to the Friends meeting in May 2007, where I received formal support to proceed with the project. The only task remaining, then, was to refine the design and actually to make it. Hiring an established glass artist was out of the question for several reasons, so it remained for me to decide that I would undertake the challenge myself, and for the Friends to trust me to pull it off. This meant I would have to learn a whole new medium at a level of mastery sufficient to have my first attempt be technically sound and worthy of permanent public display.
The design was done simply by sitting at Weld on many occasions and envisioning the finished image in my mind. I also stood on bridges watching wakes and oar puddles, and analyzed photographs to discern the water patterns’ essential lines. Once I could imagine the finished work, I drew what I calculated to be the best design proportions on paper with pencil. No computers, no programs. There was considerable challenge at every stage finding the balance between reality, aesthetics and feasibility.
I then assembled a crude actual-size test model using garden wire, dowels, tape, and almost an entire Costco roll of plastic kitchen wrap. My husband, Charlie, and I spent July 4th weekend of 2008 hoisting and hanging the models in the space, so I could determine 1) that it would look good at all, and 2) what heights, spacing and sizes would work best in practice and not just on paper. We were unexpectedly joined by Michelle Guerette and Nicky Gavel, who helped confirm our conclusions that it should be three sets of puddles at half scale (not four at one-third scale as I originally planned), and that eighteen feet overhead was the right height.
Encouraged, I now just needed to turn the model into actual glass. Tracy Glover, another rowing friend and professional glassblower, told me of flameworking, which she said I would be able to learn fairly quickly and for which I would be able to set up the equipment at a home studio (as opposed to glass blowing or casting). Unable to find local glass art classes available to a non-degree student in anything other than beadmaking, stained or blown glass, I eventually found a teacher at Boston’s Diablo Glass and Metal who was willing to be hired for an afternoon’s tutorial in the specific techniques I would need to work clear borosilicate rod. I am grateful also to the staff at Wale Apparatus in Pennsylvania who talked me through everything necessary to set up the studio and loaded my car full with equipment.
Working of the glass began once I finished the drawing plans at actual size, and took six months. Each portion of the design was drawn on paper, cut where necessary to manageable and structurally feasible sizes, and then transferred in graphite onto four-foot sheets of firebrick. I worked with a propane-oxygen hand torch in a back room off our home garage, where I had great light, a fire-proof tile floor, a safe place for the propane tank and the oxygen generator, and windows and doors for the required ventilation. It did mean, though, that I worked in whatever temperature nature offered, starting in December; there were many days mid-winter when my feet and fingers were only able to last for a few hours at a time. The required annealing of each portion took place at Strattman Design in Boston, where Wayne Strattman and his assistant Eric Starosielski gave me invaluable advice during the many trips I made there.
Then came the challenge of actually hanging the work. Over the spring of 2009, I sought essential engineering advice from igor dworkin of Alloyed Alchemists Amalgamated, and Frank Federico of Cambridge Water Technology, to be sure it went up and stayed up. They answered countless materials questions, and did the calculations to determine proper grades of stainless steel cable and mechanical fittings. Weight was not an issue for any portion hanging vertically, as each section of glass weighs a pound or two. The stern wake, though, because of its forty pounds spread over forty feet, and need to have no visible sag, did present issues of load. Sunlight also had to be considered; although indoors, all suspension components had to be completely impervious to the intense heat and UV of the old glass skylight. Dennis McCann of McCann Fabrication in Maine made the custom steel mounting brackets I designed for the stern wake cables.
Frank, together with Jon Lister from the Harvard Athletic Department, helped arrange for New England Scaffolding to stage the boathouse’s entire second floor landing the Monday after 4 July weekend 2009. The next day, two assistants from the Athletic Department, Brian Baumgardner and Glenn Myers, drilled holes into the brick walls for the stern wake cable’s mounting brackets, installed several key hooks into the skylight’s plaster moldings, and showed me how to anchor securely into the zinc-plated window mullions. I need also to credit Charlie, who provided regular assistance, principally with building the platforms needed to support the largest puddles, roping heavy things up and down, and bringing me cold drinks and ice cream (a kitchen thermometer I brought in confirmed that it was in the mid 90s to low 100s much of the time up on the staging).
We had all noted how conspicuously dirty the skylight was, and so – realizing it was now or never with the staging - I spent the entire first day carrying down the glass panels from the skylight one by one, to scrub a hundred years’ worth of oily black grime off in the showers. After that, except for occasional visitors and the helpful encouragement of the boathouse staff, I worked alone each day for four weeks. Typically, this meant setting up work platforms for each section of glass, making sure they were perfectly level and precisely the same height below the curving ceiling. Then I laid out the glass pieces on the platforms, and hung exactly vertical cables from each piece’s balance points to ceiling or mullion attachments. Each piece of glass required multiple loops of crimped cable so as to distribute loads and stresses as evenly and lightly as possible. Ceiling attachments in the 100-year-old crumbly horsehair plaster required drilling out holes, packing in fresh plaster with a pastry bag, and then quickly stuffing in an exterior-grade coated screw protruding slightly, over which I would hang a crimped loop of cable. Altogether, I used 1,600 1/32” compression sleeves for approximately 1,500 feet of cable. And I only broke two pieces of glass in the process, one of which proved helpful as I needed a small section to fill a gap at the end of the stern wake. Final steps included wiring all the ends together with #28 gauge stainless safety wire, painting all cables and fittings either the ceiling’s color or flat black (depending on which shade would help the cable be least visible during the day’s variable light conditions), and then washing it all down with two gallons of distilled water in a garden sprayer.
The entire process took a week longer than forecast, as I decided upon seeing the largest puddles installed that their diameter needed to expand, and have their outer rings largely free of cross-connecting rods. Originally six feet round, I expanded them to seven-and-a-half-foot ovals, so that their outer rings would overlap the central stern wake (important aesthetically as well as thematically). This change meant drawing new patterns, making more glass, another trip to the annealers, and then the nerve-wracking challenge of hanging particularly fragile lengths of glass from ceiling points well beyond the edge of the scaffolding.
Making such a significant change as the largest puddles’ diameter underscores a key point I wrestled with throughout the entire process. Due to the size of the overall work, I never prior to the installation saw it all together at once, let alone in the air, nor would I see it until the scaffolding was removed. I laid out a quarter of the stern wake on the floor at home to get an idea of how it would look, and assembled the four larger puddles similarly to make sure the pieces in fact fit together, but that was all I could do. Accordingly, seeing it gradually come together over that month, getting glimpses of what little projected over the staging’s edge, but mostly viewing it at knee-height and cluttered with equipment and yellow caution tape, was a revelation even to me, its creator, and growing resolution to the question worrying me all along of whether finished reality would resemble my inner vision.
Justin and the crew from New England Scaffolding returned on a clear morning in early August. I sat in a corner watching the men remove planks one by one, and gradually beheld the completed art, aloft and glittering in the bright early sun, for the first time.
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