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Ahead of the Curves

Silver City sculptor Michael Metcalf's twin, 29-foot spirals will rise this month at a busy Albuquerque intersection.

By Pat Young

 

They will soar toward the sky, blend with the earth, and most likely capture the eye and imagination of everyone passing by. Two sculptures, soon to be erected at a busy interchange in Albuquerque, are the creations of Silver City artist Michael Metcalf. Installation is scheduled to begin this month.

Metcalf with pieces of his sculpture.

Metcalf was searching for commission opportunities to educate his students at Western New Mexico University, where he is a professor of sculpture, when he happened upon this perfect opportunity for his own creative expression. In 2004, the city of Albuquerque was advertising a call for artists for a Public Art Program project at Interstate 40 and Louisiana Avenue. They chose eight finalists from 108 nationwide applicants. Metcalf, the only New Mexican among the finalists, earned the $300,000 commission with his proposal for twin 29-foot-tall sculptures entitled "The Positive Energy of New Mexico."

Each massive sculpture, weighing approximately 8,000 pounds, is composed of three arching bronze spires supporting stainless-steel splines that spiral out of a two-ton boulder, all mounted on a hexagonal stainless-steel base.

"The spiralings, much like the cycle-of-life spirals in regional petroglyphs, flow clockwise on one of the sculptures, counter-clockwise on the companion work," Metcalf says. "My concept was to be true to materials that contrast the piercing blue skies and the Sandia Mountains as one heads east, and the same lively sky over New Mexico's largest urban area as one heads west."

Before the sculptures were ready to be erected, they have slowly evolved in a Silver City studio Metcalf had to double in size to accommodate the project. Next door, in an historic home he shares with his wife, interior designer Christine Rickman, Metcalf talks about creating these distinctive new landmarks for Albuquerque. He took a sabbatical from WNMU, where he has taught since 1995, and hired an assistant, James Hemphill, to help fabricate the sculptures. Assistance came from other areas, too.

"After the contract was awarded, the price of copper increased dramatically," Metcalf says. "Phelps Dodge's New Mexico operation realized the significance of this public art project and donated the copper. They shipped it to St. Louis, where it was smelted into silicon bronze plate, which is 95 percent copper, for the spires."

He also received a small-business development grant to work with Sandia National Laboratories, determining what material to use for the spline curves. Champlin Engineering of Silver City designed the engineering aspects of the sculptures. Everything is being fabricated in Metcalf's studio, then trucked to Albuquerque and installed with the help of a crane.

"I love to build. As a sculptor I can set my own rules and decide what forms to pursue," says the soft-spoken young artist, who earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania.

He says his attraction to building things with smooth curves began years ago when he built several boats.

Many exhibits, awards and commissions later, his artwork, most of which is on a much smaller scale than the towering Albuquerque sculptures, still reflects graceful curves. Some of his pieces can be seen at Eklektikas Gallery in Silver City.

"The New Mexico environment has had a powerful impact on my work," he says. "I now blend parts of the New Mexican landscape with my style."

 

Pat Young is a Silver City writer.

 

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