Damaged WMU Sculpture Reveals Unseen World of Art Upkeep

Aug 25, 2014

Artist David Henderson's 'Thunderer' behind WMU's Dalton Center
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Some say that quote came from Leonardo Da Vinci, others say Pablo Picasso. But no matter who said it, it raises an interesting point. What happens after artists leave their work? Who takes care of it? 

WMU alum and artist Ricardo de Sousa Costa repairing 'Thunderer'
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

A few weeks ago, Western Michigan University alum Ricardo de Sousa Costa was finishing up repairs on a sculpture called “Thunderer,” which sits behind the Dalton Center on Western’s campus.

The sculpture, by Brooklyn artist David Henderson, is actually meant to imitate the inside of a torus—a kind of geometric donut.

“It seems sort of impossible considering it goes from about an 8-foot diameter on the bottom to a 3-inch diameter in the center and plumes out to a 10-foot diameter on the top,” says de Sousa Costa.

But de Sousa Costa says the sculpture didn’t fall over, it broke as a result of the harsh winter we had this year.

“Negative 40 degrees or whatever it was," he says. "I think that coupled with the snow that was on top and no weep hole, water kind of collected in the top. There’s a bulk head there, water collected there over time. With no weep hole, there’s no escape so it just got heavier and heavier.”

de Sousa Costa says with no way for water and dirt to escape, he ended up emptying about 220 pounds of gunk from the top of the sculpture.

The problem was David Henderson lives about 700 miles away. de Sousa Costa says he had to remain in constant contact with Henderson. Calling him over the phone and sending him photo updates to make sure the job was done right.

“I mean when you work on your own work there’s a special thing about it, you know. It’s your story," says de Sousa Costa. "But when you work on somebody else’s work—when you work on some artist’s whose got a vision themselves—you really have to learn the problem solving skills: to be adaptive, to listen well. Because you have to put your own ego aside.”

Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

The sculpture naturally bends and sways in the wind. So de Sousa Costa added some structure on the inside of the sculpture and then put it back together.

When I talked to him, he only had a few more weeks to get it finished before Henderson was to visit Kalamazoo.

“I’m terrified when he comes to see it," said de Sousa Costa. "Because if it doesn’t live up to the quality he was looking for, I would just feel so bad. Cause I feel like you really are entrusted. Being an artist I know what that’s like—it is so hard to kind of let somebody else touch your things.”

Fortunately, Henderson says he’s pretty happy with it. Henderson says these things happen: art falls apart just like anything else. He says there are also benefits and drawbacks to being what he calls a “lightweight fanatic.” Henderson says the top piece of “The Thunderer” only weighs about a hundred pounds.

“You see a large volume, you just automatically think it must be really heavy. And so you can sort of make something that looks like what this one does with a very thin support and it’s actually quite strong. It’s not precarious at all, but it looks really precarious,” says Henderson.

“I’m always trying to push the materials and make things as thin as I can and as light as I can. And sometimes you just go too far.”

Henderson says sometimes setbacks like this actual inspire artists to get creative. He says he’s currently trying to find a way to make his work called “The History of Aviation” into an outdoor sculpture. It’s a very lightweight piece made out of mostly foam, fiberglass, and fabric.

“Cause people have said ‘Can you put it outside?’ And I just thought how would I do that? How would I achieve this same effect, this sort of screen which lets a lot of light through in something more durable?" says Henderson.

"And I haven’t solved the problem, I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. But it is the kind of thing where at first you go, ‘Aw geez, that’s just not going to work.’ You know, it’s going to be really clunky. But then you come up with something that does work and could really be something you haven’t thought of before and could be really good.”

Henderson says just like an old house, even art needs a little upkeep.