‘Clouds’ drift in at GRB
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the project for the city and convention center operator Houston First, gave the artist an $830,000 contract, then rescinded it, claiming it was awarded prematurely.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.