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Helix, an Art Commission in the High Desert

By October 30, 2017July 27th, 2020One Comment

a Post-Truth story in the high desert…

In spring, 2017, I was in Cambodia finishing up a project about plastic, and I got an email from Steve at Buffalo Creek.  I had applied to his general call for artists to be in residence with his new program, but he had something different in mind.  He liked my work and had spent some time on my concept page of the website where I post projects that are un-realized.  He asked me if he could commission Helix for his sculpture park.

I made him a revised rendering like that above, and we were set.  Here’s what he had to say when I asked him for a testimonial for my website, “John Melvin was one of the first resident artists at the new Buffalo Creek Art Center in the summer of 2017. John had several sculpture renderings on his website that had not been built. The one that caught my eye was Helix, a thirty foot wood sculpture that I thought would be an amazing addition to our new sculpture park. I commissioned John to make Helix which continues to be one of the favorite sculptures in the Buffalo Creek Art Center Sculpture Park.”

I was excited to make the project as I had originally designed it in 2012 for a project in Indianapolis. To be able to realize something that I had put so much work into designing and engineering on the computer, was truly a dream come true.  On the CAD model, I had drawn everything, color-coded for sorting, including the bolt patterns, all on SketchUp, a revolutionary tool for designers, a platform I’ve been using (and I’ve also taught), for over a decade.

Steve and I determined the scheduling for Helix to fit in between other gigs I had that year.  While in residence at the Brickyard Retreat in China, I deconstructed all my thinking on Helix and reconstructed all assumptions and strategies again.  I did not want there to be any errors or delays when I arrived.  End of August, I landed on a direct from China to Seattle for a quick visit with Mom, then a quick flight to Reno for the beginning of the project.  In the first two days, with the wonderful help of Bill, the facility manager, we sorted tools, lumber and narrowed down the list of possible sites.  I began construction immediately.  Its deeply inspiring when a collector and institution believe in an artist to commission them to make something, words escape me other than to say its truly quite fulfilling.

The views from Buffalo Creek are stunning.  The facility is nestled at the base of the Sierras on the Nevada side just below Lake Tahoe, and looks out across the valley at the Pine Nut Mountain Range.

We set up my wood-shop to be outdoors, as at the time, Buffalo Creek was still expanding and building out.  The only choice was to work day light hours, so I was up before sunrise, and usually quit by sunset.  As much pre-fabrication as I could do, I did.  Having the CAD model was the key, as I knew all the measurements and fittings before hand, and basically made a giant alpha-numerically labeled puzzle that I would put together on site.  Simply complex.  Working in the high-desert is truly a unique experience, it can be sweaters and thermals in the morning, and t-shirt and shorts in the afternoon.  A vast majority of the mornings were below freezing and often, when it got time to build the sculpture, I held off for an hour or more as the structure I needed to climb was covered in frost.

After the concrete slab had been poured, I drilled all the holes for the mounting brackets; leveling the structure was also a beast, and to maintain control, I needed the first set of uprights individually mounted in their own bracket, integrating the sculpture with the pad.  Then, the only way to go was up, and up.  I designed it to be built this way, and in China, I had actually rehearsed the building, piece by piece, on the computer.

The concepts of the sculpture are another talking point, simple but incredibly relevant to our world today.  I had  designed it as I wanted to talk about how our world has left truth behind.  I wanted to talk about how we have gotten to a point where we can’t even agree on basic facts.  I couldn’t have imagined the world we live in today.

Helix takes its name from the double-helix of DNA, the genetic code that is shared by all known organisms and many viruses.  Humans share 99.9% with other humans, 96-98% with Chimpanzees, 98% with pigs, 50% with bananas, 26% with yeast, about 18% with plants, and many more mind-blowing comparisons.   All facts.

I did all the engineering myself using CAD software and built it solo in about 5 weeks while at Buffalo Creek.  It is construction grade Douglas Fir with stainless steel hardware throughout.  Here’s what I had to say shortly after I left for the next project after finishing Helix,

“I arrived at Buffalo Creek Art Center after having a residency in China so it was a charming re-entry to American Western Culture. To have morning coffee on the veranda of the residency house overlooking Carson Valley, watching the sunrise over the distant mountains, and watching the changing light and color on the native sage, aspen and other indigenous life, was profound to put it lightly. Like some of the other artists I had an arrangement with the Buffalo Creek Art Center to produce a sculpture for the newly commissioned sculpture park. I am fortunate that my professional practice stitches together residencies and commissions internationally, and I can say quite honestly, how everything and everyone affiliated with Buffalo Creek Art Center is truly above par. It’s always a delicate balance giving artists the intense solitude they need to focus and develop their work, while at the same time, giving them the institutional and logistical support they need to realize their projects. With the presence and experience of Bill, to the warmth and generosity of Melody, to the uncanny ability of Steve to know just when to show up for a chat, to the sparky nature of Pepper to lighten anyone’s mood, and of course the caliber of the fellow artists in residence, I can fully say how much I appreciated the time at Buffalo Creek Art Center. I’m honored that my Helix sculpture is one of the first of many sculptures to be added to a collection, and I excitedly look forward to the curatorial and practical developments of the program as the years go on. My deepest gratitude to all for making it happen, and I wish all future residents an incredible experience at Buffalo Creek Art Center. Go out, go into the wild, and find yourself again.”
– John Melvin

Its been sealed, and the folks at Buffalo Creek have every intention of looking after it.  Below is a snow shot the caretakers took its first winter.

I’m quite honored to have it there, its my first fully permanent sculpture, and the door that Steve opened, opened many more doors for me since.  I’ve made one of the first photos ever taken of the finished sculpture available here.  If you want to learn more about the project and continued updates, you can go here to my other blog, where I’ve sorted posts on the Helix hashtag.

Below is a shot I took at the completion of Helix at the very top of the structure.  I’m quite pleased indeed.

I look forward to the next projects, and am forever thankful to have had the chance to make this project.  It was a treat.  Its another testament to what artists can do when they are given the space, time, and financial support needed to make dreams come true.  Its even better when those dreams inspire other folks to dream too.  I’m honored by the press that the project receives, including this piece in Tahoe Magazine on Buffalo Creek Art Center, click here to read the article.  Here’s a bit:

“There are thousands of artist residencies all over the world,” says Steve. “But what’s unique about ours is that it is only available to sculptors whereas a lot of artist residencies will have painters and writers and musicians. We also have the space to make really large sculptures, which isn’t always the case.”

John Melvin, an eco artist who creates multimedia sculptures to spark dialogue on ecological change, was one of the first artists to work at Buffalo Creek. Steve commissioned him to create a piece for the center’s 8-acre sculpture park, and over the course of the summer, Melvin constructed “Helix.” Sitting beside a pond with the mountains in the background, the 30-foot wooden sculpture is inspired by DNA’s double helix and the genetic overlap we have with everything from chimpanzees to plants.

“I’m quite honored to have it there,” says Melvin. “It’s my first fully permanent sculpture, and the door that Steve opened, opened many more doors for me since.”

Continue reading here.

Here’s one more shot of Buffalo, no filter whatsoever, just an incredibly lucky shot I took of rainbows, sunset, and mountains on the eve of my concrete pad setting and the beginning of assembly the next day.   Thank you all for the continued support.






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