Like the road to true love, the road to public art rarely runs smoothly.
Wood-Ridge sculptor Clyde Lynds might have thought that once he came up with a design for a controversial site that satisfied all parties involved, his worst troubles were over. He didn't anticipate the setbacks that would occur during the actual installation of the piece.
Now that everything has been completed successfully, though, he can take a philosophical attitude. He says, "There are problems all along the way with these projects, just like building a building."
In September 1993, Lynds submitted his plan to the General Services Administration, which handles the "Art-in Architecture" program for all U.S. government buildings. He hoped to win a commission to execute a new piece for the entrance of the new Federal Office Building at 920 Broadway, Foley Square, New York.
Lynds impressed the GSA with his proposed work, "American Song." Like most of his sculpture, it involves fiber optics embedded in concrete to create continually changing, subtle lighting effects. Lynds has developed his technique over the past 20 years. His Foley Square work is the largest sculpture ever created in this medium.
The Art-in-Architecture panel also had to deal with protests from the community, because the building would stand on an old African-American burial ground. Lynds' three-story-high relief sculpture speaks to that situation. It features a single wing that rises 15 feet high, emerging from the surface of the stone and radiating light. A ribbon curves around the wing, and rays of sunshine come up from below.
A panel underneath is inscribed with a verse by an anonymous, African-American poet: "I want to be free/Want to be free/Rainbow 'round my shoulder/Wings on my feet."
Lynds stated in his proposal, "As the people buried in this site are anonymous, so, too, is the writer of these words. They were written during the African-American's quest for freedom from slavery, and are as universal a concept for all people as the wing is as a symbol of freedom."
The panel that passed judgment on the design included representatives from the mayor's office, from the African Burial Ground Steering Committee, and other government and art officials.
"Everyone had a favorable comment," Lynds recalls. "It was one of those days when you go home glowing. They liked the concept, and how it worked with the black community and the site itself.
"My concern was that it do all that, but also that it work in traditional way. I really wanted it to be something beautiful."
Given the go-ahead, Lynds used a computer to enlarge his original drawings to 21 feet. He worked at his Wallington studio with two assistants - his 29-year-old daughter Jennifer, and Eric Ventura of Wallington.
They transferred the full-scale patterns onto styrofoam, constructing the wing, ribbon and sunburst shapes in reverse. These designs were then transferred onto plywood-and-iron "positive" molds. After the molds were finished, Lynds and his assistants moved their operations to a rented warehouse at the old Curtiss-Wright industrial complex in Wood-Ridge. Lynds designed the fiber optics and ran them along steel reinforcing rods that would be implanted in the concrete.
Once the cement was mixed, they cast two panels of the work at a time, ending up with a total of eight panels. They had to cure each of these for two or three weeks,
keeping them wet and covered with blankets and plastic.
A forklift brought each 3,000-pound panel outdoors to be sandblasted. Says Lynds, “Then we knew what we had, and how much carving we still had to do."
He went over every inch of the surface with chisels and other tools. Luckily, he recalls, "The mold-making turned out to be pretty accurate, and we had to do much less carving that we expected to."
The panels were transported to New York, along with a stainless steel trough, two end cabinets, floodlighting, computers and the fiber optic display lighting. Lynds explains: "The computers are actually for the floodlighting, not the fiber optics - they're on a very simple, mechanical system." Six synchronized clock motors turn the fiber optic program discs.
In November of last year, the panels arrived at the new Federal Office Building, and Lynds and the workers began to install them two at a time. Two days before Christmas, however, disaster struck.
They had gotten about five panels in place, when a welder working up high sent a cascade of molten metal down the back of the sculpture, and into one of the steel boxes containing the fiber optics. This set fire to the protective covering Lynds had put over the fibers and began to melt them. Then the hot metal cascaded down to a second panel, and started to do the same thing there.
"The guy was up there on the scaffold , his face white, screaming 'Water! Water!'" Lynds remembers. "I finally got a bucket and threw it up to him. When I realized what had happened, my heart left my body. I can't tell you what a feeling that was!"
By the time the fire had been put out, both panels were severely damaged. Lynds had to take them back to the warehouse at Curtiss-Wright and patch the fibers.
"At first, I thought I would have to cast the panel all over," he says. "Fortunately, the fibers were long enough for me to splice on new ones.”
The workers began to assemble and install Lynds' piece again, and a month later they had finished. The artist often got up at 5 a.m. to start work at the site, and got home around nine or ten at night. He completed the lighting system last.
"The light takes an ordinary sculpture and makes it extraordinary," says the artist. "It creates moods and changes in feeling that you wouldn't see without that aspect of it.”
This sculpture marks an experiment for Lynds in two ways. He has executed many outdoor, public pieces before, in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Alabama, Washington, D.C., and Australia. None of those works, however, approaches the scale of "American Song.” In addition, Lynds' use of floodlighting this time is far more complex than anything he has tried in the past.
"Sometimes the top lighting goes up as the bottom goes down, and vice versa," he says. "At the same time, the fiber optics are doing their thing. There's a continuous, flowing, subliminal change of light.
In his smaller, freestanding works, Lynds has often used very colorful lighting. He says he originally planned to use color for his Foley Square piece, too, but found that somehow "took away from the dignity" of it.
"I ended up taking most of the color out, and just leaving slightly blue and 'cool' changes in it, with some gold in the rays of the sun." He feels all of his hard work has been worthwhile when he hears the reactions of passers-by.
"People on the street are wonderful - they just love it," he says. "They're taken, first of all, by the unusual phenomenon, that stone lights. After that, they begin to look at the whole concept."