One definition of art is something that carries meaning beyond the time and person who created it. That requires materials that last. A perfectly legitimate way to approach art is to start with materials that will work and then figure out what art can be made from them. That's one of the impulses that led Michelangelo to pursue fine art through stone carving and that’s what got us started pushing the limits of what can be done with marine-grade stainless steel.
Marine-grade stainless steel is a material that is incredibly durable and resistant to the elements, making it a perfect choice for public art installations. Not only does it have the ability to withstand the test of time, it can be finished with textures that are easily renewed if damaged.
Stainless steel installations by Creative Machines: Growing Home, Cocoon, Elements
One of the main challenges with working with marine-grade stainless steel is that it can be difficult to manipulate. It requires specialized tools and techniques to cut, bend, and shape it into the desired form. But that’s where our team shines. We’ve spent years developing the skills and knowledge needed to work with this material and create truly unique and impactful public art pieces.
Still, stainless is a hard material. By cutting it into lacy forms and eventually 3D printing it, we can express a wider range of feelings, but we wanted something still softer in its appearance.
That drew us to acrylic because it diffuses light beautifully but will hold up to UV exposure for 50 years or more. Our studio is a few miles from the Airplane Boneyard where it is possible to find WWII-era airplanes that have had their acrylic cockpits in direct sunlight almost 80 years without yellowing.
Stainless steel/acrylic installations by Creative Machines: Desert O, Chinook Arc, Utah Bit and Mine, Twilight Garden
Acrylic expands and contracts at a different rate than stainless steel. We can’t just bolt it to a stainless steel structure; the acrylic needs to ‘float’ so it can move separately. This requires elastomers, but most elastomers become brittle through exposure to UV and ozone or
through the loss of their plasticizing agents. Silicone is an exception but is not commonly used in a structural capacity. We’ve had to make our own bushings out of silicone to support acrylic panels in our sculptures that see the widest temperature swings.
Acrylic takes LED light beautifully, but it lacks color during the day. As public artists in search of truly durable outdoor color, we admire how south-facing stained glass cathedral windows in Europe have withstood centuries of direct sun without fading. High quality glass like ours derives its color from metallic oxides rather than organic molecules that can be broken down by the sun. The color in these artpieces will last centuries.
Glass installations by Creative Machines: Codes, Only Connect, Through Other Eyes
We’re currently starting to work with vapor-deposition coatings and developing a type of dichroic material suitable for kinetic sculptures. Vapor-deposition coatings are a type of advanced surface treatment that can be applied to materials like stainless steel to create a variety of effects. These coatings can be used to change the color or reflectivity of the material, and they're also highly durable and resistant to damage. We're excited to continue exploring the possibilities of these coatings as they open up new creative opportunities and allow us to create even more striking and dynamic installations.
Similarly, developing a type of dichroic material that is suitable for kinetic sculptures is an ambitious but very exciting challenge. Dichroic materials are known for their ability to change color depending on the angle of the light, creating a mesmerizing and ever-changing visual effect. We're currently researching and experimenting with different types of materials and techniques to create a durable version to incorporate into our kinetic sculptures.
When it comes to electronic components in outdoor sculptures, the biggest concern is often their durability and maintenance over time. To address this, we take a number of steps to ensure that our electronic systems are designed for the long-term. For example, we use connectorized light fixtures, which make it easy to replace or upgrade components if needed. Additionally, we use industry-standard protocols and components that are widely available and are likely to be in use for many years to come. This way we can be sure that replacement parts will be available in case of failure or upgrade.
We also design the electrical systems for easy access for the maintenance teams. With proper planning, the maintenance tasks are easy and straightforward. We provide detailed documentation and instructions for the maintenance team to follow. This way, even if the original team of installers is no longer available, the sculpture can be maintained and kept running for years to come.
To ensure that our projects can withstand the elements over the long-term, we have two environmental test chambers in our shop to test for both long term UV exposure and temperature/moisture cycling for all electronics, sealing systems, connectors, and new materials. These test chambers allow us to simulate a variety of different conditions that our projects may be exposed to in the real world. This way, we can be sure that they will perform as expected and last for the life of the installation. By thoroughly testing all of the materials and systems that we use, we can be confident that our installations will continue to function and look great for years to come, even in the most challenging environmental conditions.
At Creative Machines, we have designed and fabricated permanent outdoor sculptures in many harsh climates – Calgary, Anchorage, Utah, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Texas, California and coastal regions of Japan and the UAE – and installed successful permanent projects on six continents. (We're still waiting for the right opportunity on Antarctica!) We approach art installations with a long view that gets at arts ability to communicate far beyond the time of its creation. By taking the steps necessary to ensure durability, maintainability, and accessibility, we can make sure that the investment in public art pieces we build will continue to function and delight communities for many years to come.
published on January 10, 2023
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