Artists Alex Irvine and Ian Wilkinson want the new three-dimensional mural they created for downtown Asheville to have an impact – just not the kind that would involve any of their 50-pound tiles tumbling to the sidewalk or street below.
So Irvine and Wilkinson worked with Robert Steffen, a structural engineer who teaches construction management at Western Carolina University, to test the safety of methods for installing the mural. Their 22-by-21-foot work depicts a woman daydreaming as she looks out over the city against a window-like art deco horseshoe background. Some of the pieces will be 15 to 40 feet off the ground and attached to a parking deck next to the Aloft Hotel.
“We have to make sure what we are doing is safe,” said Irvine. “It’s a big deal that this works.”
Steffen, an assistant professor who holds a doctorate in civil engineering, said he was eager to help. He had worked previously with California-based Kreysler and Associates to complete engineering for the installation of large pop art sculptures such as pieces by sculptor Claes Oldenburg, and he was excited to be able to support artists and a city-commissioned public art installation in Asheville.
“The project also offered a chance for our students at WCU to see a real-world problem with a problem-solving method,” said Steffen.
Irvine, formerly of Asheville and now residing in New Mexico, said he spent about a week working with technicians, chemists and engineers to develop a plan for adhering the artwork. He collaborated with Steffen to test several methods using a load frame in a lab at WCU’s Kimmel School designed to hold and test up to 200,000 pounds of force. Steffen, who designed and helped to build the device, has used it on projects such as testing beams made of material similar to recycled milk jugs for possible use in marine structures such as docks or bridges, and the materials being used in a current renovation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“The load frame can accommodate many types of testing – beams, columns, architectural connections,” said Steffen. For the Asheville art project, the test involved affixing 12 four-inch-by-four-inch clay tiles that represented the mural to cement blocks that represented the building using a Sikadur epoxy in conjunction with secondary attachment methods, such as securing the tile with bolts.
The first sample, which was anticipated to be the weakest design, did not break until hours into testing, long after the WCU class that came to meet Irvine and observe the work had dismissed. When the sample did fail, the tile and adhesive remained in place while the cement block representing the building sheared in half, said Steffen.
“Our method of attachment was actually stronger than the cement block itself,” said Steffen.
Irvine said the testing experience itself was “incredible.”
“Dr. Steffen has a really fun job, and we got to be there for the best part – breaking things and measuring really precisely how much it took to break them,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like the lab, and it’s really cool to have the opportunity to use it. Testing our installation methods and materials at the university makes our public art team more professional because now we have data to prove that what we are doing is safe.”
The safety factor of the attachment methods proved to be extremely high and “well beyond our expectations,” said Steffen. The final design selected involved the use of epoxy in addition to a grooved face and bolt, he said.
Installation of the mural begins Friday, Sept. 26, and will take four to five weeks to complete, said Irvine. The city of Asheville’s Public Art Program commissioned the artwork at the site, which is visible in the city’s skyline, as part of an initiative called the 51 Biltmore Public Art Project. The project is intended to enhance the sense of local identity in downtown Asheville and complement the hotel’s contemporary architecture, according to information from the city.
Irvine and Wilkinson said the art deco horseshoe pattern in the piece they are installing references the historic location of Asheville’s farrier trade, and the woman is looking out over downtown Asheville as a place where creativity flourishes.
“We are very thankful for this opportunity to collaborate again and make something amazing for this city that we love so much,” said Wilkinson, an Asheville artist known in the city for his painted murals, in a release from the city of Asheville.
Irvine said there is something special about creating public art.
“I like making something for everyone – something anyone can walk by on the street and appreciate,” said Irvine.
Irvine will be a visiting artist at WCU on Monday, Nov. 3, and Tuesday, Nov. 4, and will deliver a public lecture while on campus.