It took a lot of perspiration and patience to get Lansing's new sculpture in place
At 7 a.m. Thursday, a flatbed truck backed into the parking lot of the Lansing City Market and aimed a 24-foot-long wooden crate toward the riverbank.
Two workers unbolted one end of the crate. The morning sun caught a gleaming curve. Something very large, sleek and silver was sleeping inside — something from California.
Was the majestic humpback whale being returned to the Grand River at last?
The size and shape were right, but the curves were too smooth. There was only one explanation. Postmodern, interactive sculpture has come to Lansing.
“Inspiration,” Lansing’s new one-ton bauble, had finally made its way to Michigan from the California workshop of artist James T. Russell.
It took a bit of coaxing, but by the 1 p.m., the curvy ribbon of stainless steel — a gift from the Lansing 150 Foundation and a roster of private donors — was bolted to its permanent home between the City Market and the Shiawassee Street bridge. By late afternoon, the welding and polishing was done, and the piece already looked at home.
Russell and his crew have installed such swirls all over the country, but the wide hips of “Inspiration” posed a special problem.
“The only way to get this sculpture here, it was so wide, was to do it in two pieces,” Russell said.
That meant that the one-ton, 20-foot-high sculpture had to be welded together at its pointy apex in the City Market parking lot.
There was no time to lose. Even while lying on its side in the crate, this creation was clearly ready to come out and play. The stainless steel was already providing inexhaustible riffs of reflection and distortion on anything that came near it, from wooden slats, to yellow tape, to protective wadding, to the workers’ faces.
While directing the work, Russell looked more like a puttering uncle than a temperamental artist. He wandered restlessly, fiddling with tools and equipment. While the welders set up shop, he methodically picked up dozens of screws let over from the unpacking of the crate and dropped them into his Arizona Iced Tea can. He walked to a nearby Dumpster, lifted the lid and dropped the can inside.
A slow ballet of lifting, balancing and wrangling began. Two half-ton hunks of metal had to be lined up and welded together precisely and seamlessly.
When the halves were within inches of each other, Russell shrugged off his methodical shuffle and came alive. He addressed the sculpture like a boxer, hugging the two halves while his assistants made precisely aimed tungsten welds.
Russell has described “Inspiration” as the culmination of a lifelong artistic passion — the fusion of the male and female “principles.” By melding a vertical tower with an inviting aperture, Russell has bestowed the city with conceptual, never-ending sex on the river.
When the subject is raised, Russell’s deadpan face curls into a grin.
“This is like a climax,” he said.
When the two halves were one, Russell took a rare break on a folding stool.
“I wanted a small weld,” he explained. He pointed to the sculpture’s site on the river below. “When we weld it in place down there, we’ll use an arc welder and we’ll polish the welds, so we have the security.”
“I don’t usually do those things in the field,” Russell said.
“I choreographed the whole thing, and so far everything’s gone exactly as I’ve anticipated. We should have it up today.”
But the assembly wasn’t the trickiest part of the job.
“When we erect it and put it in place is the most delicate,” Russell said.
Usually, Russell’s work goes up in front of a casino, a town square, or a corporate headquarters, without a natural feature in sight.
“The best thing about this site is the river,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s great that the Rotary Foundation afforded me the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be here and create a work of art that’s going to last another 150 years.”
After lunch, a bigger crane lifted the newly fused sculpture, swung it slowly over the bluff and lowered in into place. Joggers, bikers and strollers circled around the site with a puzzled glance. Some stopped to watch.
Russell and his crew fiddled with the triangular footings where 20 bolts, one inch in diameter, anchor the sculpture a foot deep.
The first try was not a success. The feet didn’t match the bolt holes in the two footings, so the whole sculpture had to be swung around 180 degrees.
The crane operator swiveled the sculpture in mid-air, showing off one of its most striking features: It seems to change shape when viewed from different angles.
The mid-day sun, at its hottest so far this year, added perspiration to the inspiration.
This time, the fit was better, but not perfect. The crew hitched a chain to a nearby tree and tried to winch the sculpture apart so it would plunk down onto the base.
At the same time, two amused workers were putting finishing touches on the small plaza built for the sculpture.
“Is it going to fit?” one of them asked a member of Russell’s crew.
“We’ll make it fit,” came the reply.
After a half-hour, the sculpture’s feet were planted to the base, but not evenly. There were still unseemly gaps. The crew would have to shim the space with extra metal plates, weld them down and cover it all with decorative flashing. Russell went back to the shed and dragged an armful of C-clamps to the site.
By 5 p.m., the welding and polishing were winding down. When a brief shower followed the 80-degree heat, “Inspiration” got an instant welcome to fickle Michigan weather.
"Inspiration" Dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15, on the Grand River Walkway between Lansing City Market and the Lansing Center; mayor Virg Bernero and sculptor James T. Russell are scheduled to appear. At 3 p.m. Sunday, a time capsule will be placed inside the "Construction #150" sculpture outside Lansing Community College's Dart Auditorium.