Haydon Alexander is wearing a green smock and the clear front of his welding mask is pushed up so he can talk to me.
“We’re making something that’s certainly more than the sum of its parts,” he says.
The 17-year-old high school student isn’t kidding. We’re standing in front of a sculpture that rises about 18 feet high and is mostly composed of “cobra heads”—the trade name for the arched street lights you see in almost any American neighborhood. The lamps, along with some other decommissioned fixtures, were donated by Duquesne Light Company for this piece. It’s part of Pittsburgh’s Re:NEW Festival, a month-long celebration of art and performance focused on reuse and sustainability.
LISTEN: Inside Pittsburgh’s Re:NEW Festival
This downtown sculpture is somewhat dwarfed by the trees and high-rise office buildings in Gateway Center Plaza.
“The general feeling of Gateway Center is sort of all the buildings are very sterile,” Alexander says. “And this piece follows some of the geometry we see here, but it’s more natural and more flowing.”
It looks a little like a flower sprouting from the pavement. Alexander is talking to me during the short breaks he takes from putting the finishing touches on the piece. He’s moving up and down a red ladder, securing the lights with a stick welder.
Alexander’s been an apprentice with the Mobile Sculpture Workshop, a community outreach initiative of the Industrial Arts Co-Op (IAC.) They teach high school kids to weld and work with metal through working on a piece of public art over the summer. This Gateway Center piece is a special commission for the festival.
Tim Kaulen from IAC is on the scene to supervise. He and the other artists working on this sculpture got to pick through Duquesne Light’s Manchester facility on the North Side—what he calls their boneyard—for the parts to make it. It was basically like a shopping spree for materials—before they were recycled.
“There’s a constant flow of really terrific objects and shapes and materials that go through their process,” Kaulen says.
He says there are lots of benefits to working with a utility company’s trash, including the price tag. Everything’s free. But there are a few challenges.
“It’s a little dance with the materials, and sometimes they win and sometimes you cannot resolve them to the way that you want them to fit,” Kaulen says. “But ultimately, there’s a new harmony.”
He and other members of IAC are responsible for a number of iconic, large-scale sculptures around Pittsburgh that are composed of industrial materials—including the enormous wire deer at the Carrie Furnaces, a former steel industry blast furnace in Braddock. In fact, the base of this sculpture is built of I-beams from a Duquesne Light power station at the Carrie Furnaces. There’s still graffitti on some of the beams. They are tiered, and the layers are reminiscent of ancient pyramids found in Latin America.
Eddie Opat, one of the designers of the piece, says it’s inspired by pre-Columbian architecture.
“One of the main things we were trying to do is use this consumer infrastructure refuse to build something that nods to a culture that was sustainable in itself,” he says.
Opat’s here helping Kaulen and Alexander get each light into just the right position—directing them to move one a little to the right, another to the left. When they’re done, he clears off the slag—the protective coating left after the weld—with a piece of scrap metal and a brush. But it’s not finished yet. Eventually, the sculpture will glow. The instruments have been re-wired with LEDs. Opat says the piece is called Almenara—Spanish for “beacon.”
“It’s a beacon for sustainability and moving forward,” Opat says. “And hopefully, [it will] inspire people to take things out of their conventional form and explore other options after their intended life.”
They’re also hoping to plant some grasses and vines in the bottom, so the sculpture looks as if it’s always been there. That way it will seem as though nature is actively participating in their process of transforming Rust Belt metal and glass into an object of organic beauty.
You can see Almenara at Gateway Center through October 9. And check out more about the Re:NEW Festival here. Photo (top): The Industrial Arts Co-Op’s Tim Kaulen. Credit: Kara Holsopple