Artists get into big sculpture for different reasons. What got me into steel was a friend who believed that I was more of a sculptor than a painter.
Outdoor sculpture is such a different process than say, stretching a canvas to complete a thought. Safety is a major concern when tons of steel are involved. While some artists claim to do it all from start to finish, I have no shame in saying that when something could cause major harm, my course of action is to partner with a niche professional to ensure my clients have the most enjoyable and safest experience with their artwork.
The most creative fun occurs in the design phase anyway! This is where I visit the site and gather visual information to think about as I conjure up gestural renderings in my sketchbook. Often times, a client doesn't get to see these sketches because they are literally all over the place - I jot down anything and everything that comes up, and find how these things can be honed into one conversation between forms.
On this particular project, the client knew they wanted the piece to be called "Onward". It was a steel commission for their private residence along the beach in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The client wanted to pay homage to the location of his home, which was once "Camp Onward", the first integrated girls' summer camp in the state of Mississippi. Capturing the lighthearted spirit of little girls playing on the beach became my goal.
A detail of my sketchbook shows how I got inspiration not only from the client's wishes, but also from what was naturally growing on the site. I immediately spotted the delicate little pink flowers of wild sweet peas growing nearby, and used them as stand-ins for the "girls". I drew them up close to study their movement, and compared them to my figurative studies of children making playful gestures. Other things which inspired the work were the sea birds, the clouds, butterflies, and the way wind affected the movement of trees.
After some time to sketch and focus, I created a few pieces in maquette form, and invited the client over to see them in person. When working by commission, it is natural to want to make a client happy, but I've learned that it is best to show my personal favorites - pieces that I would make anyway. My personal favorite of the group ended up being their personal favorite too.
The initial placement for "Onward" was to be as a focal point along the home's driveway. The client and I were first considering raw steel to allow the work to oxidize naturally as I had with an earlier work, but because of the work's proximity to the sea, a solid coating of paint was needed to provide protection from the harsh elements. To create a modern contrast to the landscape and also bring forth the piece's spiritual nature, a solid white was chosen to bounce spiritual "light" onto the viewer.
When possible, I enjoy partnering with local shops. The people who work in steel shops are usually creative as well and have fun working on art projects like this as a break from the usual bridge building project. The client worked closely too with a good friend who was a landscape architect to ensure the work had a spot that offered protection, and so instead of placing "Onward" near the driveway, they decided to place the work beneath the huge oak trees on the front lawn. This added another visual element to the work, because on sunny days the light shines through the branches and creates silhouettes on the solid white surface of the sculpture.
Commissioning a big steel sculpture is a wonderfully fun process, and is often times a community effort. As an artist, I enjoy the dialog of creating a site-specific and unique work for my clients to enjoy and share with others. The client had four mini versions of this work created for each of their four children. The process overall doesn't have a set time limit, but on average and without delays, it could occur in as little as 8-10 weeks.
The most rewarding part of creating big outdoor sculpture is that it is enjoyed by the public in a way that does not require a complete understanding upfront. Wondering is encouraged. Sculptures like this tend to take on a life of their own after completion, and when created for a particular place, the work inherently becomes a part of it.