Lightning Bolt

1988, Aluminum, 21’ Length

While working as a grinder at Tom Scarff’s sculpture studio, I  participated in the 1988 International Sculpture Symposium at the Fermilab Nuclear Accelerator Laboratory. This was my very first big piece as a working professional even though I had not yet graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. Scarff, a member of the Symposium steering committee helping organize the event, encouraged me to fabricate my 21-foot lightning bolt by teaching me to weld aluminum in his shop. He mentored me to develop out of the box thinking and to develop creative problem-solving skills. Scarff was also the first artist to expose me to the concept of light as an art medium in and of itself. This served me well not only for this piece, but for my entire career.

Dozens of the top sculpture artists from around the world had been invited to install large outdoor pieces on the grounds above the accelerator ring, which also contained homes for the scientists and even a herd a buffalo. Ted (Sitting Crow) Garner, the lead foreman, signed me up to be on the installation crew. Sculptures had arrived days in advance by flatbed truck and we contracted a large crane on site to pick up, place, and set some pretty heavy objects. It was a long job and after we got everything else accomplished, it was time to install my piece. We simply stepped it up vertical like a sailboat mast, and shoved it straight into the ground a few feet to hold. Done. Suddenly sirens started raging all over the grounds. We were directly above a nuclear accelerator laboratory, and we just shoved a metal object straight in the ground. We realized we must have shorted out some kind of highly sensitive circuit. We didn’t know what to do, or how much trouble we might be in, so we hightailed it to the main building to look for help.

It turns out the sirens were for a tornado that passed nearby. Observing a tour getting ready to go to the magnetic lab, we followed along and attempted to blend in. Down in the lab, the tour guide went through a whole series of interesting subjects. As he demonstrated the effect of turning a certain valve, red lights started flashing. The guide stammered that he didn’t know why that happened. He turned the valve back and this time alarms started going off and the guide began to panic. He strongly suggested that we should get out of there as quickly as possible as if there was going to be some kind of China Syndrome event. However, it was just part of an act and the joke was on us.

Back up in the main lobby we were discovered, and we went upstairs to meet some of the physicists in their offices, which were filled with maps of the cosmos. As we spoke, we collectively marveled at the similarities between physicists and artists.

At the opening ceremony, I met Dr. Wilson. Fermilab was his original vision, from the lab below, to the super conductivity experiments, and the sculptures lining the road above. He inquired if I was the artist who created the lightning bolt. When I said yes, he shook my hand, leaned close to my ear, and  informed me it was his favorite piece. This still makes me smile, considering he has been internationally recognized as one of the smartest men on the planet.