The realization of this massive, black basalt bas-relief sculpture of the iconic winged goddess of victory has generated considerable interest. I’ve been assured that is an achievement worthy of attention & from a certain point of view, the story of how it came into existence is an interesting one.
It is far from being the largest or most prestigious (possibly debatable) commission my studio has take on, but it is by far the most complicated, technically challenging and certainly, the most stressful one – at least, in recent memory.
I’ll apologize in advance for my writing style: it’s detailed & basically, conversational. I’m sure a professional writer could do better than a stone carver, even one with a college degree. I’m starting up a dialogue with one now (a professional), so perhaps there is some hope for more pleasant prose in the near future. In the mean time, I’m planning to tighten it up, add in some missing parts and edit it into a more streamlined account, as I can – but, for better or worse, here is my story in my own words…
Last May (2017) I was approached by the special arts projects PM at Hoffman Constr. Co. (one of the NW’s premier commercial builders) and began a dialogue about the viability of creating a massive stone bas-relief sculpture which was being proposed for the executive boardroom of a local, Oregon-based Fortune 100 company.
This initial conversation ultimately led to mortal peril, a project delivery deadline that was nearly unattainable (& probably should have been), I endured self-inflicted stress beyond belief (accompanied by about 3 months of recovery), there were more than a few moments of sheer desperation, anxiety and night terror – but – ultimately, I acquired a very real sense of confidence & personal satisfaction that most likely couldn’t have been achieved in any other way. Yeah, I bit off far more than I possibly should have, but I chewed thoroughly, swallowed and thankfully did not choke.
At the end of the day, I made a new friend or two and was able to learn a few important things about myself – even after nearly 30 years of doing what I do – which is actually saying something. This project makes me happy. That this now exists in the physical world where others can experience it, makes me very happy. Everyone should own a win like this. It’s really very awesome.
Note: This private client’s creative & legal team wishes to remain unnamed for their own reasons, so I will respectfully honor their wishes and would further like to express to them my gratitude for allowing me to show images of the work and claim credit publicly for the creation of something truly worthy of the path I chose to take in my professional life many years ago. This – more than just about anything – is what I’ve been about. If they hadn’t chosen to relax the NDA I signed to accept this commission, this blog post would not be allowed to exist. You would not be able to read or see something unique and interesting or possibly even know anything about how it came to be.
On 3/3/2018 11:51 AM
Subject: Awesome work!
I just wanted to thank you for such outstanding work! Absolutely beautiful.
I know you were against all odds, but you made it happen.
I had the pleasure of seeing the work first hand on Friday, I was truly speechless.
I hope you are proud, you should be.
Best, [Name Redacted]
AWESOME, OUTSTANDING & SPEECHLESS: Likely amoung the most welcomed and hoped-for words that can be uttered spontaneously by the principal client representative and organization’s creative director in response to a seeing a completed art commission of any kind, let alone one front and center in the executive board room of the new world HQ building for one of the world’s premier brands. Whew! I can’t tell you what a relief that was for me in that moment. I might have even gotten a little misty.
No pressure, right? I’ll get into more of that later in the story: exactly, what kind of pressure,…
At the time I received this note, I had quite literally been waiting in peak anxiety since mid-Feb. for either the world to end or at least some kind word of client acceptance of final delivery of components of what is likely to be one of the most consequential commissions of my career. Up to that point, I had been sweating it out for nearly 2 weeks of mentally exhausted uncertainty while the installation team was completing their part of a multi-faceted effort of completing a very complex project on an extreme deadline with massive consequences – financial and otherwise – I think, really, for all stakeholders: the Client, Design team, General Contractor, Digital Art Team, Engineer, Lighting and Stone installers and me – the artisan who had to deliver near perfection in about a third of the time normally required to produce something like this. Just to be clear: this was very much a team effort and the success of the whole was really a shared collaborative effort. At this point, I’d especially like to thank the PM at Hoffman Construction Company. If he wasn’t such a decent human being I wouldn’t have survived. He ran interference and took blows for me. Maybe there was more at stake than I realized at the time, but without his efforts on my behalf, I wouldn’t have survived the encounter. I’d also like to thank the installation team at Western Tile and Marble. They are truly professional craftsmen and I know they were also working under extreme stress and with an ultra tight schedule. They took my work and completed the site installation without a break or a scratch. I wasn’t needed on site. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a single punch list item related to the sculpture. How great is that? Oh Yeah!
When I was approached in May of 2017 by the Special Art Projects project manager of one of the USA West Coast’s leading General Contractors, I was thrilled: “they” had found me, which in a sense partly validated decades of effort on my part in trying to become known as a source of quality & innovation in a very obscure artisan niche. But, the unpleasant truth is that even after decades of demonstrable work on notable projects of significance & consistent quality craftsmanship, a single artisan maker – such as I am – is relegated to a constant struggle of balancing the time and energy required have a life and make a living “doing” with the underlying reality of trying to also inform the “marketplace” adequately of one’s unique capabilities, technical advances and continued relevant presence as a provider of somewhat exotic & specialized services. It’s either that or starve. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to figure it out. I don’t know. Seems tougher than it should be. Especially after all of this time and all of the significant work that’s been done.
So, really, what I was – was lucky that the PM’s persistence had resulted in his contacting a few individuals who knew of my work who suggested he look me up. I was later told by the PM that he had looked and hunted nation-wide and was unable to find anyone willing to take the project on. Privately, I suspect no one was crazy enough to be willing to put their existence at risk taking on a project that could quite literally end their career. I guess I was. Willing. Crazy or maybe just dumb enough.
For those of you who don’t recognize this image: it is inspired by the iconic & eponymous NIKE or VICTORY at Samonthrace sculpture currently located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The original is white marble and about half the scale of this wall sculpture. This work is constructed from a very hard, dense and brittle local black basalt and which was then inlayed into a field of water-jet textured Italian Black Granite tile. There is also some lettering carved into the granite which is also the product of my studio and hand.
[Place photos of inscription here]
I’m not entirely certain of the genesis of the original inspiration behind using this imagery or sculptural orientation in this space. I’ve approached some of the architect team who were involved in designing the building, but so far I’ve not gotten any specific information as to who thought this up as an idea for this space. I hope to have lunch in August with the PM and will ask. Personally, I think it’s an inspired choice and I am thrilled to have been tasked to do the initial problem solving to verify it could be done & then to be commissioned to actually execute the work. It really was a wish come true.
Work of this nature isn’t unprecedented, but it’s not common. It took a great deal of courage on the part of the client to risk moving this forward. I was open & candid with the client and GC that what was being proposed wasn’t something typical or common and it was no secret that the scope of what was being proposed was magnitudes more complex than anything I had in my portfolio up to that point. In fact, I’m not sure there are very many projects of this magnitude or complexity level in existence anywhere and even fewer attempted in a hard stone material like basalt.
The sculptural elements are fabricated from a local black basalt stone from the Moses Lake, WA area – an ubiquitous Pacific NW material in various colors, textures and forms that covers vast amounts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia – probably stretching into Montana, Nevada and Northern California. In this particular case it’s an amazingly tight-grained satiny black that takes a polish. I worked with a local stone company who cut the rough blocks to size and supplied the slabs which were then cut to fit in my studio to the super-tight spec’s needed for the project.
The core block dim. is 3 inches x 6 inches x 24 inches. Of that overall depth, the carving is actually contained within just 2.5in of depth and is then inlayed into the graffiti granite paneling covering the wall. Overall the sculpture is about 15ft tall and 18ft Wide. Est. wt. of stone – 7,500#
There are more than 300 parts in the finished work, many of which are first roughed into shape with CNC robotics technology and then each pc. is hand-finished and fitted into the cut-to-fit granite. It is a process essentially similar to the one used by many stone carving studios throughout time: in this case using robotic machines instead of human praticien, such as those famously employed by Rodin in his studio, to perform the roughing from the original models, in this case digital files.
NOTE: I’m planning to add more information about the nature of the artwork and some of the processes used in carving the individual blocks in the near future. Check back soon for updates.
[Place photos of artwork here]
The first most important aspect of the project was the artwork. The artwork was purely digital and subcontracted out to a professional digital art team. Initially I was asked to provide the artwork, but the delivery date required for the completed work was so rapidly approaching I practically demanded that the client hire a design firm specializing in this kind of work to provide the core artwork. We worked closely together during the first few months to refine the design. I produced an initial scale model of the carving in high-density urethane along with a full size section approx. 4ft x 5ft. Based on feedback of the first scale model a second was commissioned to confirm the changes would meet the demanding attention to detail. The anticipated wt. of the stone alone was truly intimidating. The immediate need was to minimize the overall mass: getting as much detail as possible for something of this scale necessitated a balance between wt. reduction (thickness of the module) and down-lighting. Also, keep in mind that all of this mass is hanging off the wall structure along a thin ribbon of floor inside a modern-constructed building on an upper floor. Due diligence required some engineering attention. As an artisan, all I can do is advise, which I did. Smarter, more capable minds were tasked with the working out of the necessary details. The compromise position was a 3 inch thickness overall, with 2.5 inches max. range to work within. This got us our range and the digital arts team was able to model the lighting and the relief topography to maximize the effect visually. The reality is that there is a massive amount of ambient light in the space, which interferes to some degree with the LED down-light effect during the day, but some of the imagery was taken at night and one can see an amazing depth and clarity of surface that is truly a wonder: it appears far deeper and more defined than the 2.5 inches would suggest. A success by the design team and lighting specialists. I will happily add that I’m very pleased with the outcome, even if the ambient light diminishes the effect during daylight hours.
The robotics – or as I prefer: my digital praticien – utilized in the studio amplifies the productive output of the carver many fold – it still requires the breath of life of the master carver to perform the final steps by hand to finish and detail the sculpture. But what the technology allow is for a single individual to perform the work of dozens of praticien working practically non-stop for months on end. That being said, the reality of my life for many months was simply unpleasant. I had expected to run 10 machines concurrently, but I quickly realized that I had personal limitations – as do we all – and 6 was about the upper limit; I was able to keep running 6 CNC machines alone for most of 4.5 months. My day started at around 5am and ended at or near 10pm. Cutting hard stone requires a very attentive focus: water supply is critical or there could be a fire, bit break, damage to the work piece or at minimum a whole bunch of wasted time, so there was no practical way to run the machines 24/7 as much as I wanted to or would have liked to. The machines needed to be monitored constantly and any instances of failure caught and corrected as soon as possible. I was often literally running & constantly on my feet moving between machines, changing parts out, swapping bits, clearing obstructed water lines and quickly became attuned to the sounds (healthy and otherwise) of each machine in the studio. I was quite literally a key part of the smooth and mechanical operation for as long as I could stand it physically and mentally – daily, weekly and monthly. I stopped keeping track of time, but it was a relentless grind of 14-18 hours a day, seven days a week and other than a few hours for Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, it didn’t stop until I was done and even at that I barely kept to the delivery date. But I did keep it. And it was all good. Thankfully.
In terms of process, basically the digital art team handed me a massively detailed displacement map of the bas relief. They are known by a few other names: Bump map, height map, etc. We’re basically talking about a black and white image that is something like an old negative in the sense that it’s user definable high point and low point are White and black. The grey scale provides the topography in between. There was a great deal of struggling with the size of the file initially and trying to solve some problems like positioning into the fixed grid of the field materials that needed to be discussed and established before breaking the image into precise parts. Also the client insisted on 0.0625 inch tolerances (1/16th inch) between parts. Yeah, right – exactly!. What a pain and they wouldn’t budge on that point either. Hello,… accumulation error! Once all of the grid issues were worked out then the parts were segmented into the modules. I broke out the grid elements in granite from the basalt and cut stencils to mark and fit the granite part by part. Hand cut with a ring saw. I initially proposed that this be done with a water jet, but in the midst of the time crunch I elected to keep this in house to cut by hand while the CNC machines were running. It turned out to be a very good decision for reasons I wasn’t expecting having to do with the final fitting. The G-code files were generated to run the machines and smaller parts were nested into the stones in groups. Everything was coded and numbered so that the parts could be fitted and mapped for the installation team.
[Place photos of rough/finish components here]
The parts cutting involved an initial “roughing” stage of milling. About 1/16in passes to get to the core shape of the part. The secondary stage of milling involved a smaller bit and a change of trajectory that netted the finished part fairly close to the final dim. needed. That final step involved stacking the stones into a grid and hand-finishing and cleaning, tightening the cuts and sharp edges in order to have a smooth transition between adjacent parts. The largest single area I was able to get flat at one time in the studio was approx. 4 ft x 4 ft. Given the jammed up delivery schedule, I was literally handing off finished stone elements at the lower half of the sculpture to the installation team while stones were still being milled in the machine beds destined for the upper part of the sculpture. NOTE: I would generally strongly advise against this. It’s literally asking for a problem without a solution. I got very lucky. In my defense, I knew in advance this was going to have to happen before I even signed the contract in order to make the date and to that end, I spent a great deal of time at the front end when I was relatively fresh double and triple checking all of the foundational data and measurements that this sculpture would be based on. There would be no way to recover from an error without a do over. And there would be not time for that and not enough money in the world to throw at that kind of a problem. The short production window available dictated this. I wasn’t certain I could even make the date, but I did know there was only one reason I wouldn’t: death or incapacitation. You probably think I’m joking. I assure I am not.
There was one error that could have really caused me an unrecoverable problem: it goes like this… the software I was using (ASPIRE) has a working window within the screen area. I had the good sense to incorporate a grid of fully black and white squares in each of the parts to allow the computer software to register the full ht. and depth of each part. I would center the artwork into the working window and generate the G-code and the start cutting. There were around 150 basalt parts to cut and another 150 or so granite parts to fit into. I was happily milling away and focused on the roughing parts for the first month or so – naturally starting at the bottom working up. Everything numbered and staged in a reasonably organized way in the studio. Once I had amassed a group of the lower elements I started grouping them only to discover there were some seriously different elevations between parts. Naturally, I had a bit of a panic since I wasn’t sure what was going on. Turns out the software isn’t registering the ht. depth except for within the working window for some reason. Not sure if that’s an oversight or purposeful, but I had a real problem. Fortunately! what was happening was the parts were higher than desired, rather than lower than desired. I did need to work out a way to calibrate the parts properly – and I did need to re-cut many of the finish stage components, but the good news is that the finishing stage generally was measured in hours rather than the days it was taking to cut some of the rough components. I was also able to order a number of thinner slabs from the stone supplier, which allowed me to save days of milling to get many of the thinner parts. I was looking at anything to shorten the duration and make the date.
[Place photos of hand-finishing components here]
I did seek out the services of a friend I trust during the last couple of weeks to build crates and help out with a few things not specifically requiring my hand. Honestly, I was dragging myself around at that point through sheer will. Not having any fun at all and barely ambulatory. I could hardly think straight and I figured he’s fresh and at least I won’t hurt myself operating a table saw and nail gun. More or less I think the real value was moral support and the encouragement of a friend at one of my most worn out moments. He (Thank you, Paul!) made a very real difference when I most needed it.
This project does qualify for the advisory: “Professional closed course – do not try this at home.” Candidly, just about every aspect of this was risky and fraught with danger. Having said that, it was also a perfect job for the perfect client. If I had free permission to design my own dream job, I seriously doubt I would have come up with something this grand and magnificent. Once I saw what was proposed, passing on it wasn’t really an option, but the contract and the negotiation was beyond anything I had ever encountered. I spent considerable time reading through it and hammering out what I could and couldn’t work with through the initial conversations with the GC. I know I frustrated him with the detail I was getting into, but I also knew enough to know this was likely to be complete and utter destruction of nearly 30 years of building a business if it went wrong, and my gut was telling me it could easily go wrong in a multitude of ways. I ran the final iteration by my attorney (I think I turned down the contract at least 2-3 times initially) and was advised to take a pass. I didn’t doubt him, but I elected to throw caution to the wind and take this chance, risking everything on something that needed to exist.
Even with hindsight and a successful conclusion, the real kicker is that I built it alone in about a 4.5 months period. Despite a simply ridiculous delivery date they also wouldn’t budge on and accompanied by horrible financial devastation and ignominy if I screwed up or somehow missed the date. It truly kicked my backside and has taken most of the last 3-4 months to recover from the stress. Obviously, I no longer possess the youthful ability to bounce back quickly. I’m not sure how many more projects with my entire future on the line I’m open to gambling on (as of this moment, I’m almost positive it won’t happen again – I’m simply getting too old for this level of risk), but this one seemed so, so perfect (I’m certain those words have been spoken by many others with not so fortunate an outcome!) – it really came down to putting up and rolling dice. Thankfully, the outcome was spectacular – maybe even better than my wildest imagination.
The superlative laden emails I got from the client, GC and others made me blush. Delivered on time, on budget, zero punch list items to address, I got paid and everyone’s happy. Tough to beat that! and now I own something that can’t be taken away. Mostly, I’m just grateful to have survived the experience and lived to tell the tale.