‘Clouds’ drift in at GRB

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Glentzer

The ded­i­ca­tion of the Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter’s new show­piece sculp­ture, “Soar­ing in the Clouds,” on Thurs­day wasn’t only a cel­e­bra­tion.

For artist Ed Wil­son, the mo­ment also felt like vin­di­ca­tion, end­ing an ugly chap­ter of Hous­ton art his­tory and prov­ing he could de­liver a ma­jor public work de­serv­ing of one of the city’s most high-pro­file spa­ces.

“I’m pretty happy with it, and re­lieved,” Wil­son said.

His mon­u­men­tal mo­bile, fab­ri­cated of per­fo­rated stain­less steel, is a key el­e­ment of Hous­ton First’s $175 mil­lion plan to cre­ate a vi­brant new “front door” for the city, de­signed to draw vis­i­tors into the con­ven­tion cen­ter’s new Grand Lobby well after Su­per Bowl LI.

A fan­ta­sia of cloud

and bird forms in col­or­ful, shift­ing light, the in­stal­la­tion cel­e­brates Hous­ton as a fly­way for winged crea­tures. Es­pe­cially from out­side, it sug­gests a mur­mu­ra­tion of birds in flight.

Closer up, it’s eas­ier to dis­cern 14 lay­ered “units,” with about 300 el­e­ments to­tal, that dan­gle 67 feet from the ceil­ing and drift slightly as they catch air cur­rents.

The piece looks most dy­namic at night, when chang­ing lights amp up the shim­mer and cast eu­phoric, moire ef­fects on the ceil­ing; and re­flec­tions in the top win­dows cre­ate an il­lu­sion of end­less, cloud­dot­ted sky.

“Soar­ing in the Clouds” is one of the largest and most ex­pen­sive works of public art pro­duced through the city’s per­cent­for-art pro­gram, which ear­marks a small por­tion of funds from ma­jor civic build­ing con­struc­tion projects for on-site art.

Wil­son’s com­mis­sion stirred con­tro­versy in late 2014 after the Hous­ton Arts Al­liance, which man­aged the project for the city and con­ven­tion cen­ter oper­a­tor Hous­ton First, gave the artist an $830,000 con­tract, then re­scinded it, claim­ing it was awarded pre­ma­turely.

Doc­u­ments ob­tained through the Public Records Act re­vealed that high-pro­file lo­cal art col­lec­tors who served on the al­liance’s se­lec­tion com­mit­tee wanted more “bluechip” art for the space. Matthew Len­non, a friend of Wil­son’s and the al­liance’s then-di­rec­tor of civic art and de­sign, re­signed. Ul­ti­mately, Wil­son re-won the job.

“Public art is messy, and public process is messy,” said al­liance pres­i­dent and CEO Jonathon Glus. “That said, public process worked. It’s a beau­ti­ful, ex­tra­or­di­nary piece made by a Hous­ton artist.”

Hous­ton doesn’t award com­mis­sions of this size fre­quently, although air­port ex­pan­sions also have yielded a few — most re­cently, Chris­tian Eckart’s 2015 “Cloud Room Field” at Hobby Air­port, which cost $600,000.

Space was a chal­lenge

“That puts you in some sort of rare ter­ri­tory, to prove that you man­aged a bud­get like that and de­liv­ered,” Wil­son said. “I think I have de­liv­ered a good fin­ished piece and did it in a timely way.”

The con­ven­tion cen­ter’s three-story atrium, which has a 92-foot tall ceil­ing, pre­sented a unique chal­lenge, Wil­son said. “So my idea was to take a bunch of lit­tle ob­jects and spread them out to ac­ti­vate the whole space.”

The artist and his crew shaped each piece, in­clud­ing the large, puffy “clouds,” us­ing a hy­draulic press he in­vented for the job. He hired the­atri­cal light­ing de­signer Christina Gian­nelli, also a Hous­to­nian, to cre­ate the daz­zling ef­fects that “fill” the space to the ceil­ing. The lights will even­tu­ally run on an hour-long cy­cle.

“The idea is that you could walk through quickly and see one thing, and on your way back it will be dif­fer­ent. Or you can sit and watch it un­fold,” Gian­nelli said.

She and Wil­son also worked with WHR ar­chi­tects to add drama: The ceil­ing has a bright white, in­fin­ity wall-like sur­face that en­hances the shadow play. The win­dows’ lowre­flec­tiv­ity glass pro­vides a clear view of the sculp­ture from out­side, and gray es­ca­la­tors re­cede into the space so they don’t dis­tract from the spec­ta­cle.

“It was all about the ceil­ing and the re­flec­tions,” Gian­nelli said. The place­ment of the lights was crit­i­cal. “We didn’t want peo­ple to get lights in their eyes when they look down on the sculp­ture, and we had to be care­ful not to get lights on the glass — that would pol­lute the im­age from the out­side,” she said.

Sara Kell­ner, who re­placed Len­non, said once she saw Wil­son’s scale model with the light­ing con­cept, she knew the piece would be “fan­tas­tic.”

She ad­mired it this week for other rea­sons, too. “This is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily huge piece, and it’s all hand­made,” she said. “This plaza is now go­ing to be so much an area about civic cel­e­bra­tion, and this piece is go­ing to be­come the back­drop for so many fu­ture events in Hous­ton.”

Sev­eral dozen Hous­ton artists, rep­re­sent­ing mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions, were at the ded­i­ca­tion to cheer Wil­son as he flipped a gi­ant light switch below the in­stal­la­tion with a cadre of of­fi­cials.

“It’s def­i­nitely a win­win for artists, es­pe­cially after all the po­lit­i­cal backand-forth,” said Sel­ven Jar­mon, who knows all about epic strug­gles to re­al­ize mon­u­men­tal in­stal­la­tions. Jar­mon has spent sev­eral years rais­ing funds for “360 De­grees Van­ish­ing,” which next spring will cloak the Art League Hous­ton’s Mon­trose build­ing in a veil of African beads. He loves Wil­son’s piece. “The mock-up didn’t re­ally speak to the grandeur of the piece,” he said.

Art deemed es­sen­tial

Artist Ter­rell James, who wore “ED” but­tons on her blouse from a cam­paign the arts com­mu­nity waged for Wil­son two years ago, also loves “Soar­ing in the Clouds,” and she was pleased to hear of­fi­cials call­ing art es­sen­tial to Hous­to­ni­ans’ lives.

The con­ven­tion cen­ter’s other mon­u­men­tal com­mis­sion, the ki­netic “Wings Over Wa­ter” by Tuc­son’s Joe O’Con­nell and Cre­ative Ma­chines, will spin above the new Foun­tain of the Amer­i­cas by early Jan­uary.

Hous­ton First also com­mis­sioned eight smaller works by area artists to liven up the cen­ter’s ren­o­vated walls and new de­vice-charg­ing sta­tions. Those projects have been han­dled in-house by cul­tural pro­grams man­ager Chris­tine West.

Spokesman A.J. Mistretta said the cen­ter’s first floor will be open to the public ev­ery night start­ing in early Jan­uary, so that vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence the art and dine at its four new restau­rants open­ing in time for the Su­per Bowl: Pap­padeaux, Grotto Down­town, Bud’s BBQ and McAlis­ter’s Deli.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Chron­i­cle

“Soar­ing in the Clouds” fills the Ge­orge R. Brown’s new lobby.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Hous­ton artist Ed Wil­son and his team crafted the 300 pieces that make up his new 67-foot mo­bile sculp­ture, “Soar­ing in the Clouds.”

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