Way back in 2007, I was doing an assistantship at a pottery called Mudfire in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a 6 week break between a residency I had just finished in Mexico building a monumental fire sculpture and my first real job teaching art to chronically and terminally ill children. Knowing that I was about to move to a new city and live alone for the first time (woohoo, no roommates!), I decided that I should have a nice set of dishes for my little studio apartment.
So, I got to work and discovered that a hyperbolic curve is a great form for a coffee mug! In fact, I still drink out these all of the time (there was literally coffee in the one on the left when I took this pic)! The thing about pottery is that you try to really think about what shape is going to be comfortable and functional. You think about how it feels in your hand and try to make it a shape that will be easy to clean (it’s a bit like engineering in some ways). And once you have your form built to meet the intended function, you think about surface design that best fits that form. The relationship between the form and the surface design is a big deal in the world of ceramics. Artists spend their careers tweaking glaze recipes, carving intricate designs, hand painting tiny, perfect little decorations.
For me it is all about color. I was a star student in Color Theory class and an avid Mark Rothko enthusiast in school (still am). For whatever reason color has always been my strength as an artist, and in my ceramic work I was able to utilize complex chemistries and very hot kilns to get the perfect shades. Nothing like staying up all night to “reduce” a kiln (by limiting the oxygen flow) and coaxing the iron in your glaze to shine bright red, instead of dull grey. For me, nothing evokes emotion like the skillful use of color.
It was a little more than a year later that these ideas finally converged in my mind and I thought: man, those giant cooling towers would be perfect for color field paintings. The form is just begging for a surface treatment.
Rothko was able to achieve incredible depth of color by layering very thin coats of paint over and over again on canvas. In ceramics, the glazing and firing process allowed me similarly vibrant colors as I manipulated the chemicals in my glazes and the environment and temperature in the kiln. And as it turns out, concrete stain is another medium capable of achieving rich, complex hues. Which brings me to my latest site visit: Plant Vogtle.
My final site visit for 2013 was appropriately close to home. After spending most of the year traveling throughout Europe and the U.S., I was happily reminded that major progress in the development of new nuclear technologies is happening in my own backyard. Plant Vogtle is not only the first nuclear new build in the U.S. in several decades, but I also have many close friends and colleagues working on all aspects of the unit 3 & 4 construction- so it’s pretty special to me. Additionally, Vogtle would be an ideal place to realize my artwork.
I’ve been down to the plant a handful of times in the past year to talk with the communications staff about ways to potentially incorporate public art at the site, but this visit was really for my friend Sara. Sara has been engineering the switch gears for all of the AP1000’s around the globe for the past year. So, in a stroke of genius, we decided that we needed to see exactly where her switch gears fit into the plant! Basically, even though cerebrally she knew that her work was important, she felt like she lacked an emotional connection to the product. Thanks to the amazing staff at Plant Vogtle, we were actually able to get Sara and her entire engineering team down to see where all of their hard work will eventually pay off- as a key component of one of the most sophisticated technologies on the planet. And not only did Sara find the connection she wanted, her whole team did as well.
It is taking a whole lot of people, all over the world to design, build and construct all of the parts and pieces of the new AP 1000s. Essentially we not just building reactors, but are rebuilding a supply chain that has been largely out of commission for several decades. Getting the manufacturing infrastructure back into place not only supports the big designs, but also small modular reactors and advanced reactors going forward. And it’s so cool that Sara is a part of this process (proud of you, girl!!).
I hope that in the new year the nuclear industry starts to think a little more about the expanded needs of both their workforce and their customers in the next steps of developing their products. There is something really powerful about people feeling connected to their work, wether it’s art or engineering- and there is also something powerful about customers feeling connected to a product that provides for their fundamental needs. Forging these connections is what I like to do. And now 5 years after the initial idea to paint a cooling tower, I’ve seen the industry start to grow and change in big ways- we are focusing more on diversity, inclusiveness and protecting the environment. Visually communicating these changes through public art would be a great way to positively influence dialogue about nuclear energy from the inside out. Happy New Year!!