Icarus. The diary of a commission
On the road just outside Newport, Co Mayo, on our way back to Achill Island.
I can remember exactly where I was when the phone call came through. It’s not every day that your phone rings and it’s a US number. I pulled over to take the call and put it on loudspeaker so that my wife Mandy could hear. It was Lucy Billingsly, a property developer and president of the Billingsly corporation in Dallas, a call we dared to hope might come but never really believed it would.
A few days earlier friends of ours who run a boutique holiday destination for foreign travellers had alerted us to the fact that they had hosted Lucy and her husband at their venue in Co Clare and that she had shown some interest in a piece of my sculpture which they owned. Our friends believed that the interest was sincere and that Lucy had indicated the possibility of a commission in Dallas, Texas, and that she would get in touch. This was greeted, on my part, by the normal suspicion and disbelief but a week later, while driving back home, the phone call came.
Centered around a 362 acre lake, Cypress Waters is a 1,000 acre planned development, in the heart of the Dallas Fort Worth. It is currently being developed by Lucy and her Billingsly family corporation. She and her family have a long and illustrious history and love of art collecting and this love has been a major driving factor for her and her concept for the new development.
During our phone conversation Lucy indicated that I would need to make a proposal to her and her committee for a sculpture to be sited at the main entrance to the new development. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was not the only sculptor they had approached and in fact I was one of four who had been shortlisted to make a submission. This was to be a substantial piece of work both in scale, concept and budget. Although I had some extensive experience of working at large outdoor scale sculpture in Ireland, this commission was to be at another level altogether. Not only was it to be on a greater scale than anything I had completed before but there were also the engineering and fabrication logistics to be considered. Where was the piece to be built and by whom and how in God’s name does it get to Dallas? This was going to require a bigger space than my small but beautiful little studio on Achill island.
Before any of this was even considered I would need to make a proposal which I felt was suitable for the site and, more importantly, which I believed was a strong and worthy piece of sculpture. It should be of a scale to have impact and be of materials which would weather well in the unexpected and varied climate of north Texas and of course it should be achievable within the given budget. A fairly lengthy process of back and forth emailing ensued from late September 2018 until early January 2019, when the decision was finally made. I was awarded the commission, signed the contract and was given a very tight schedule for delivery. They needed the sculpture to be in place by early May to coincide with the opening of the latest phase of the development. This would mean approx 16 weeks to have the piece completed and shipped to the states. It very quickly became obvious to all involved that this deadline was not going to be achievable but work commenced with much haste and endeavour.
My proposal which finally won the commission was titled Icarus. The proposed piece would stand over 10 metres in height and depict a winged figure in bronze and stainless steel. The figure with wings outstretched would stand on a zig-zag structure in Corten steel. In order to ensure that my proposal could be safely constructed, I engaged the services of Tobin Engineers, a London based operation who specialise in large scale sculptural works. Working from my drawings and maquette they produced a set of dimensioned sketches and specifications which would allow the sculpture to be safely scaled up from my model. And so with drawings in hand and the model tucked under my arm I approached Cisco Engineering in Drogheda, a company with whom I have a long working relationship. They enthusiastically engaged with the project and undertook to fabricate both the Corten structure and also the stainless steel element of the figure. The wings which were modelled in wax and styrofoam were cast at the Morriss foundry in Foxford, Co Mayo.
Work continued apace during the early weeks of 2019 as I traversed the country from Achill to Foxford to Drogheda and back again and for a period of time I was constantly on the move. I liaised with the engineers and Cisco throughout the construction process, ensuring that the various angles, dimensions and relative stresses involved in the Corten base structure were being successfully fabricated. And all the while the bronze wings were talking shape. The wings, which I modelled in my studio, were cut into many sections and individual moulds were made of each part. These parts were then cast in wax and from there into bronze. The final process being the fitting back together of all the parts and welding back together. This process took over two months.
Early on the morning of May 6th Tim Morriss and I transported the wings from Foxford to Drogheda to be fitted to the now finished stainless steel body of the Icarus figure. Finally the parts were coming together and late that evening with wings attached the sculpture was raised in Cisco’s yard. The whole crew of workmen, many of whom were directly involved in the process, downed welding masks and grinders to help with the raising of the piece which, once erected, stood well above the surrounding buildings.
The process of crating, trucking and shipping the sculpture would be another story in itself. Loading the dismembered parts of the sculpture into the back of a shipping container with millimeters to spare was the stuff of scary youtube videos. The sculpture left Drogheda on the evening of the 6th and arrived in Dallas about three weeks later, travelling via Antwerp and across the Atlantic to Houston and onward to Dallas via truck.
Having missed the initial deadline the sculpture sat in a yard in Dallas until October last year when I finally got the call that they were ready to install. Myself and Mandy flew out to be there and oversee the installation process. Rather than at the entrance to the development the decision had been made to site the sculpture next to the lakeside at the very centre of Cypress Waters. An elevated concrete plinth had been constructed to receive the piece which had the result of raising the piece to an overall height of 12 metres.
Icarus now stands tall beside the lake in Dallas. He can be seen from a long way off with wings outstretched, perhaps ready to take that leap. It’s difficult to describe the emotional experience as we turned to leave on our way back across the Atlantic to Achill. There stood a piece of my work which began life as a roughly outlined sketch on my workbench on the other side of the ocean. Part of me is still standing there in Dallas, with arms outstretched, in expectation of the next leap.