I'm finished! After seven months of carving, I have completed my largest and most ambitious project of my career as an artist. (And to that same end, I am writing my most ambitious blog post!) This is not just a sculpture, but a sculptural experience.
In February, 2017, I was invited to compete with four other local artists to create a sculpture that expressed the history and philosophy of the Norton Hospital Audubon Campus facility and family. We were to consider major historical events as well as the central themes that have defined the institution. Surprisingly, it did not take much time at all to create my vision for the experience. I only went through 3 or 4 versions before settling on my final vision for the project. I assembled a model that brought my vision to life. I then worked with my wife and a fantastic artist representative, Keen Nichols to create the written portion of my proposal. I am not a writer at all, but Keen really listened to what I had to say and could "see" my vision for the experience. Additionally, Keen was the one that suggested the title, "Cor Liberum". I loved it. (I loved it even more that I didn't have to come up with the name.) In addition to these two pieces of the puzzle, I decided to carve a mini version of one of the birds that were part of my vision. The main elements of my vision were to be produced out of Indiana Limestone, and I wanted the committee to have a physical element that they could touch and feel to understand what that material is. With all of that done, I took all of my stuff and went to the interview.
The interview was a 30 minute presentation to a committee of representatives of Norton Hospital, including Jon Cooper, the CEO, and Norton Hospital Foundation. I was scheduled to present first to the committee. It was a good thing, because I was so excited to share my vision, I couldn't wait to get in and get in front of the committee. Also, I wanted to share the model and the bird in a specific sequence. By being first, I was able to get into the room and cover the model and bird so that I could reveal them at the right time. Even with all of the thought and planning on how to reveal my model and bird, things changed.
The interview did not start all that well. I came into the conference room and introduced myself and I handed out my presentation book. I started sharing my vision for the project. I hadn't gotten through my opening remarks when the head of the foundation stopped me and asked if I had any visuals. I decided I had better change my plan for the presentation and uncovered my model and bird. The room went from a bunch of blank faces to total engagement. I went back to sharing my vision and was able to have a great conversation with the group about each element of the experience and why it was important. The committee was so engaged that after 40 minutes, one of the members said that we really needed to stop because we were eating into the next artists time. From that point on, I knew that if my vision was not chosen, I had at least made it a difficult decision for the group to choose a different option!
The interviews were on a Friday and we were told we would be contacted on the following Friday to let us know who was awarded the commission. However, on the following Monday, I received a call from Joe Myers, a member of the committee. Joe was the person who had originally contacted me about the sculpture. Since is was only Monday, I assumed he was calling for clarification at best, and possibly to let me know that my proposal had been eliminated. He asked me how my day was going, and then said it was about to get much better and told me that I had been awarded the commission. He said that the decision was made so fast because my vision for the experience touched on all of the points that the committee wanted brought to life and they were so excited about it that they could't wait to tell me! It was one of the better phone conversations I have had!
So, off to work I went. The first step was to pick out the blocks that I would use for the project. I went up to the Indiana Limestone Co. quarry and met with Brent Blackwell. Brent has a great eye for the right stone and how it will match for the piece you are working on. We drove around the quarry showing me 12 different blocks. We picked out three blocks that I liked, two for the central figures and one for the birds. The best part of the three blocks is that the two that I picked out for the central figures were "brothers" in the quarry. They were in the ground end to end. That was perfect! The three rough blocks had a combined weight of over 78,000 pounds. Brent cut them down a little to my specifications. After trimming, the 3 blocks ended up at 23,000, 17,000 and 18,000 pounds. I also ended with an extra block as one of the off fall pieces ended up 8' x 4' x 1'. With the off fall block, the blocks for the figures and birds ended up at 62,800 pounds.
I arranged for transportation of the blocks and "Cor Liberum" was officially under way. I started with the largest of the blocks, the one for the birds. I started with this one as the studio is too small to have all 3 blocks in it at the same time.
The birds block was pre-cut 2/3 of the way down the block in seven segments because the quarry will not cut the block all the way through, so it came in at 23000 pounds. I had to cut the rest of the way down the stone to free the birds. This also allowed the stone to be moved into the studio in smaller pieces to make it easier to bring the other two blocks in. If you have never seen how big a 23,000 block of stone looks sitting on the back of a flat bed semi trailer, imagine an SUV sitting there. Then, if you haven't seen that block being lifted off the flat bed and set on the ground, you don't know what you are missing. I think it is one of the most amazing things to see how a crane works. I also think about the ancient artists that did all of this moving of stones without the assistance of these modern miracles.
Over the next month I got a good start on the birds and then brought the two blocks in for the figures. I spent the next seven months carving the figures and birds. While I made good progress, there were times where I couldn't see the end. Other times where I felt like all was going well. Towards Thanksgiving 2017, I realized that I would need some help with the finishing of the elements. I got that help from Karen Terhune and Chris Mozier, two local artists who also work in stone. Once I received a commitment from them, I felt a lot better about finishing the project on time.
All projects have challenges, and "Cor Liberum" was no different. Looking back, I can remember many swings in my emotions. The biggest challenge came when I was standing up the large figure. I misjudged the placement of a wood block that was designed to keep the piece from slamming forward and possibly tipping too far. While the piece did not keep going over, it did slam down very hard and a very large section on the bottom broke off. I couldn't believe it. I called my wife and told her I had ruined the piece! I worked on it a bit and felt that I could possibly make it work without starting over. I did some work on it and finally decided I needed to get going on the Patient to really know if the two would work with each other. As it turns out, Once I had a chance to settle down, get the patient stood up and really look, I realized that the bottom of the figure was too large anyway. It didn't fit with the smaller figure. I was able to rework the bottom and fix the problem.
The challenges did not stop with that. The next problem was a bit of an issue with the History pillars. The information to be inscribed on them was due from the hospital by July. That would enable enough time to order the stone, receive it, deliver to the monument company, receive it back and get them installed. Around August, we decided that there was too much information for the original design of the pillars. We went through several renditions until we decided on a new design. The only issue was that this process took until October. When I ordered the stone, the first company I talked to could not guarantee that they could complete the order until the end of January. That would not leave enough time to get the pillars to the monument company and back in order to install them on time. I contacted another company and they could not commit to a time either. In the end, I ordered the stone from both companies in the hope that one set would arrive by mid January. Of course, neither did. To add insult to injury, both sets arrived the same day so I was never able to cancel one of the orders. As a result, I now have a second set of stone to add to my already overloaded supply. But, you have to take the positive view that you can never have enough stone can you?
While all of the carving of stone, moving of stone, standing up of stone, ordering of stone, etc., was being done, I was also meeting with the engineer, meeting with the Norton staff, setting schedules, communicating with the installers and many other small detail to keep other on job-site things underway. The major part of the onsite work to be done was grading the courtyard and setting up the footers and walking path.
The courtyard where "Cor Liberum" is installed used to have two large trees. The trees had been cut down and the site had a very large mound in the center. As part of the experience, i have a curving path that has a slight incline up to the center figures and then a decline back away from the center. My original contractor that was supposed to grade the area and do the concrete work was a no call no show twice. After the second no show, I fired them in November and hired Kelsey Construction. Unfortunately, Kelsey was three times the cost of the original contractor. Also, they were not able to get to it right away. Kelsey planned to start in January. Of course, the December weather in Louisville was perfect for pouring concrete. January, not so much! We went through several delays. I was really getting nervous about being able to hit a March completion deadline for the project. By late January, I didn't have any concrete poured, nor did I have the stone to wrap that concrete or create the History Pillars. As you can imagine, I had many sleepless nights.
Sometimes you are good, and sometimes you get lucky. The last week of January, I was ready to call my installers Methods and Materials out of my hometown Chicago, and tell them that I had to put them off. Given their booked schedule, if I had had to do that, I don't know when I could have gotten them back in town. Thus, the luck. On Monday of that week, I had made the decision to call them and tell them I had to cancel the installation. I had originally planned to call them first thing Monday morning, but ran into some things at work that kept me from calling. At 10 am, i got a call from Rick with Kelsey Construction asking me if I could come over and approve the footer location because they were planning on forming them and pouring on Tuesday. I hadn't herd anything from them in about two weeks, so I was pleasantly surprised, we were back on our way. Not more than 5 minutes after I got off the phone with Rick, I got a call from one of the stone companies that they had finished the stone and it was ready to ship. I called the second company to cancel the second order and they said it too was done and was ready to ship. Another financial setback, but finally, things we looking better. We weren't out of the woods, but it was looking more positive than it had in a long time.
Over the next three weeks, the fosters were poured, the sidewalk was formed and poured, two orders of stone arrived and the stainless steel poles were ready for pick up. My neighbor and good friend Mark Hendren with Lay-em-all Masons installed the limestone wrap around the concrete base for the pedestal for the central figures. It was a whirl wind of activity that was moving nicely. The best news was that I was able to keep the guys from Methods and Materials on schedule and set for the last week of February. I was on an emotional high at this point.
My next challenge came when I picked up the stainless steel. In my original proposal, the tallest stainless steel post was to be 20' tall. I did that because stainless comes in 20' lengths. I was pushed by Joe Meyers to consider adding some height to the birds. We even went out and did some tests to see how things looked at the 20' height. After some thought, I agreed to raise the top bird to 26' , the next to 24' and the third to 20'. I was not real happy about partly because of the additional cost welding the extra length would entail, but more importantly because I thought that it would create too much separation between the top birds and the rest of the experience. I was also very concerned about the look of the stainless. I had always pictured it as a very dull mill finish and I didn't think the welding would be able to be ground back to a similar finish. However, I agreed to add the height and figured I would deal with the consequences if they came. The consequences came!
When I approved the welding finish at the fabricators shop, It was a really cloudy day. I wasn't totally thrilled with the finish, but they assured me that it would dull down over time. On delivery day, I showed up with a truck and was too busy to really pay attention to the finish. Mark Hendren met me at the hospital where we unloaded the poles on to his trailer to move them into the courtyard. Because of the height of the lower lever where we had to unload the poles, it took forever because we could use a standard forklift. We had to take each individual pole and strap them to a low profile lift to get them close to where they need to be in order to be set. I was so focused on the logistics that when I finally got them to the site and had a chance to see the finish, I couldn't stand it. The welding jumped off the poles like a sore thumb. Once again, one of the emotional swings where I was so upset that my vision for this experience would be ruined. I decided I could not live with it and started sanding the poles. I ended up spending 2 days hand sanding the poles. I was able to use several grits of paper to finally get the poles down to a mat finish. Not as nice as the mill finish, but I am satisfied with them.
Along with sanding the poles, I also was spending time at the studio getting everything ready for transport. I had to lay the figures back down for transportation. My chain hoist is rated for 10 tons. This means it has a very large ratio of gear movement to chain movement, so it takes a long time to raise or lower. As I laid the figures down, it felt like some of the longest minutes of my life. If something went wrong and they dropped, they would be ruined. Given that we were installing the next week, that would have been a bad thing. Fortunately, all went well.
Installation day, February 27, 2017 arrived. You wouldn't think about it unless you have done it a few times, but cranes can't lift much weight at all when the boom is more horizontal than vertical. why is that important? Well, the figures, now down to roughly 6500 pounds and 4800 pounds were still inside the studio with a 12 foot tall door. The crane that would be light enough to be able to drive up onto the upper level of the entry where we had to pick the figures to install them would not have enough weight be able to lift the weight of the figures with its boom in a horizontal position to get under the height of the door. So, I scheduled a different crane to arrive at 7 am and move the figures out of the studio. This allowed the other crane to come and pick them from the parking lot so the boom could be in a safe position. That all went well. I rigged the figures for the first crane and while a little nervous to see them moving out of the studio suspended by 2 straps, all was fine.
Then came the next challenge. I was not responsible for the crane to set the figures, So, when I saw a brick truck (and a really old one at that) pull up to load and transport my lifes work of the last seven months, it was not a comforting feeling. And, at this point I had to turn over control of rigging to Methods and Materials. As the crane was setting its out riggers, a huge boom came from the crane. It scared the crap out of everyone. I was ready to send the crane away, but my installers took it all in stride and began work. They carefully rigged the figures and got them all nestled in place and sent them on their way to the hospital. They took the short drive over and the meat of installation day began.
Now, any artist that works in a monumental scale comes to realize that you are totally reliant on others to handle, rig and install your work. This is a very helpless feeling. But, Methods and Materials did such great job it made the day go by a little easier. The guys were very professional and caring. They really took their time to ensure that I was comfortable with the progress. They deferred to me on all artistic decisions even though they are all artists themselves. For the most nerve racking two days of the entire project, they did all they could to make it simple, safe and satisfying. What else would you expect from some guys from my home town, Chicago?
The first of the two figures, the patient, was unloaded and stood up. They rigged him up and got him ready for his journey over the edge of the courtyard wall. He had to be lowered 15 feet to his new home. It was very difficult to let the guys do their work, but I managed. They lowered him down to do a test fit of the pins. They went right in the first time. The large figure, the care giver, went over the edge next and once again, the test fit was perfect! My biggest concern other than that they might get dropped was that fitting. I had made the template in the studio and kept thinking, did I have them set right in the studio? I am always second guessing myself until I see things done. The Care Giver was test fit and was perfect. That was the first moment where I really saw my vision coming to life in its setting. The figures were epoxied in place and the major part of the installation was behind us.
The next step was to set the poles for the birds. We were expecting rain the next day, so the crew worked hard and got all of the poles set on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we spent much of the day dodging rain. We finally got the five birds set on top of their poles and started welding them in place. Of course, there came the next problem. The welder the crew rented did not work. Half a day later, the rental company showed up with a replacement and the guys were able to get the welding done. The major portion of the experience was installed!
The next step was to get the backfill, lighting and landscaping done. That all went pretty well, other than one of the poles was anchored through the conduit for the electric. By this point, I figured, what the heck, it wouldn't be right if all went exactly as planned. The guys from Messer took it in stride and fixed the problem.
Finally, the last step in the process, the setting of the History Pillars. They took forever to get here, and with design changes and scheduling challenges, they cost 3 times the original budget, but they were worth it. The pillars really give the experience a finishing touch and help unify the experience. They provide context for the many elements of the sculpture. They also provide a filler element that if left out, would have left the path a little bare. It was great to see them in place and see my vision come together.
While this project had many challenges, they were all part of the experience for me of developing such a large and important work. I always strive to have my work meet my expectations. While that is very difficult, and some individual elements could have been a better match to my vision, I am very proud of the overall experience I have created. It really does match my vision. It matches the model I originally presented. And, it matches the expectations of the hospital family. For this, I am very proud of "Cor Liberum".