Engineering problems made sculpture job hard to swallow

Vancouver Sun, January 3, 2004 

Doug Taylor had a great idea for a sculpture. Like his other work, it would reflect and amplify the place that inspired it — Sawmill Point on the Selkirk waterway in Victoria’s Gorge Harbour. Like his other work, the wind would make it move. Unlike his other work — Wind Swimmer at Kitsilano Pool, Mr. Lead, the walking horse in Cordova Bay on Vancouver Island, his Ford pickup truck pinioned on trembling aspens in Steveston or the Whiskeyjack Balance at Whistler’s Plaza of Champions –- it would take a series of architects, three engineering firms, a team of almost a dozen steel fabricators and all the 3-1-6 marine stainless tubing in Canada to build.


Purple Martin Spiral was installed in Victoria this month; taken across the Georgia Strait on a barge, lifted by helicopter across the harbour, then hoisted by crane onto its base in a reflecting pool. It looks effortless, almost gestural: a wire-frame bird chasing an insect, their darting flight path traced in a coiled steel line from the bug through the bird and into the pool. And that was what Taylor saw one summer morning some four years ago, standing on the shore of the harbour.


“It was just one hot summer morning, and the action of the feeding in flight ran through me,” he remembered. “That’s the greatest feeling. It’s why you do it and it’s often the biggest kick out of the process, including fabrication and installation — that discovery. It’s unconscious; you really don’t know how it got there.”


The purple martin swallows got to Sawmill Point because the Ministry of Environment installed nesting boxes to bring them back to the Selkirk Waterway. That’s why Taylor saw them, and that’s what he aimed to capture in a series of maquettes — scaled-down models of the piece he envisioned. The first ones were on a scale of one inch to one foot — one twelfth the size of the proposed finished piece.


 More than one person consulting with Taylor’s client (who insists on remaining anonymous) told them the thing wouldn’t work. The client was just as inspired as Taylor had been, and told him to figure out how to build the thing the way he saw it: about thirty feet high, with a purple martin swallow that was ten feet from beak to forked tail.


“It was beginning of and engineering nightmare,” Taylor said of the client’s trusting him enough to figure out if the piece would work. “You’ve got something that frightens people and you don’t know how it’s going to translate when you blow it up. So I went into investigative engineering. We did one version with very heavy pipe. It would have been safe. But it wouldn’t have moved.”


Taylor’s movement into investigative engineering — and later into the esoteric reaches of envelope-pushing steel fabrication — are typical of his career path, which features twists and turns like a flying swallow’s. He didn’t start out to be an artist.


Working on a degree in political science at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s, he found himself frustrated with academia and looking for something more expressive. He found clay. But even as he worked more with clay and less with political theory, he didn’t think of himself as an artist. He thought of himself as somebody who was investigating alternative social structures. He helped start an artists’ cooperative that comprised a dozen people and ran for fourteen years. During that time, he went back to school at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, where he worked with a teacher named Jeff Rees.


“He used to say that people who study art academically know what art is, but don’t know how to make it. Art school folks may not know what it is, but they know how to make it. That helped me immensely.”


He worked with sound and movement in his pieces, as well as teaching at Emily Carr. He’s also built extremely realistic Calusa and Seminole natives for the Florida Museum of Natural History, astronauts for NASA’s Houston Space Center and wireframe figures for architect Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle.


Some artists make work that seems aimed at proving certain critical or theoretical concepts, or to be part of a rarefied dialogue between artists and critics — one that many observers feel excludes anybody who doesn’t have a degree in art history or critical theory.


Not Taylor.


“They’re all toys,” he said of his work. “Toys are the greatest inspiration for me. People never really grow up. They just get bigger adult bodies. And they really want to continue to play. My inspiration comes from the work of many, many anonymous folk artists. The Whiskeyjack Balance is based on a Quebecois toy that I saw. The Wind Swimmer at Kits Beach is an exploded whirligig. This swallow is like a jack-in-the-box.”


But not many toys use 3-1-6 marine stainless tubing — material normally used for high-pressure pulp-mill steam conduits. But the swallow had to, because it’s next to the ocean. And marine stainless tubing is the only material strong enough to support the piece, flexible enough to let it move in the wind and fine enough to look like a traced flight path. It took wind-tunnel testing at the University of British Columbia and strain-gauge testing from engineering firm Bacon Donaldson to figure that out, however.


“We did strain-gauge tests on a quarter-scale prototype,” said Bacon Donaldson engineer Bob Milne. “It’s the same kind of testing that’s done on prototype aircraft.”


Thin strips of metal are applied to the surface of the structure that measure how much strain the metal is under as varying loads and stresses are applied to it. In this case, many of those stresses consisted of Taylor hanging on the model or leaning on it.


“The only real difference between this and the work we normally do is that this is art instead of something industrial,” Milne said.


The models and their testing proved Taylor’s theories were right. But there was still the challenge of building the full-size piece.


Burnaby’s George Third and Son metal fabricators started as a blacksmith shop in 1910. In almost a century of work, they’ve done some art along with their industrial contracts, but not much. About a dozen people worked on Taylor’s swallow through the spring and summer of 2003.


“It looked good as a model and the idea was fine,” says Third’s Bart Crowe, project coordinator for the swallow. “It’s one thing to think about a piece like this. It’s another to build it in a way the artist will be happy with.”


At the end of July, Taylor was finding it difficult to sleep. The project had come a long way. He’d bought all the 3-1-6 marine stainless tubing available in Canada at the time — $20,000 worth. The piece seemed so close to completion, but there were still many unknowns. At one point, the coil midway up the base sank a foot. Taylor was suddenly terrified the piece might not work. And getting more 3-1-6 tubing would mean having it shipped from Spain through Montreal to Vancouver. But realigning its footing on the base and tilting it seven degrees solved the problem, maintained the esthetics and gave the swallow itself more of a soaring trajectory. Fixing the sag improved the piece, almost as though the metal itself was asserting an esthetic idea.


Now that the piece is installed in Victoria, Taylor is in the early stages of his next piece. Titled Khenko, it’s a massive heron planned for False Creek’s David Lam Park. Sails and a series of wheels will use the wind to flap the heron’s wings.


“That’ll be the third bird in a kind of triptych: There’s the Whistler whiskeyjack, this swallow on Sawmill Point, and then Khenko the heron. And that’s all the birds I’m going to do.”