From the bucket of a mechanical lift, sculptor Aaron T Stephan shouts out numbers and letters like a bingo caller: “24B, 38A, 26E.” On the floor below, an assistant, Tessa Greene O’Brien, writes everything in a notebook and repeats the numbers and letters back to him.
Precision is essential. Stephan and his team are taking apart and packing for transport an intricate wooden suspended sculpture, “Paths Woven,” that consists of 25 twisted wooden ladders that are spun around each other like a giant double-helix. The sculpture is 65 feet long and 16 feet in diameter at its widest, and consists of 125 separate pieces. Each piece is marked so Stephan will know how to reassemble his artwork.
That will happen this spring when Stephan, a Portland artist with a national following, installs the piece in a new building at the San Diego International Airport.
“This one is complicated,” he said with a small laugh.
“Paths Woven” is among the most ambitious projects Stephan has taken on in the 15-plus years he’s been making public art. He won a $275,000 commission from the San Diego airport authority last March and has been working on the project most of the year since. That money is supposed to cover all of his costs associated with the piece, including its design, fabrication and installation, as well as his pay, wages for his assistants and the bill for trucking everything – estimated at about $5,000 – more than 3,000 miles from Portland to San Diego.
He designed and built everything himself, constructing the ladders with six layers of laminated Maine maple, and one with walnut that is local to San Diego. He used more than 4 miles of laminated wood, 70 gallons of glue, and hundreds of dowels and clamps.
By using thin layers of wood, Stephan allowed each section to find its natural flexibility and achieve the spiral effect he envisioned when he conceived the piece. The ladders share a basic shape, but each one is unique.
“I wanted to let the wood do what it wanted to do,” he said. “It makes a more graceful curve than I could.”
WHERE FRIENDS, LOVED ONES UNITE
Stephan installed the sculpture as a dry run in a rented warehouse in Portland, and will truck it to San Diego in May. It will take about two weeks to put it back together. The new airport building will open in late June or early July, said Lauren Lockhart, arts program manager for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
“Paths Woven” will be suspended from the ceiling of the “meeter-greeter” lobby of the airport’s new Federal Inspection Services Facility. That’s where friends and loved ones will unite with arriving international passengers, Lockhart said. It’s a glass-walled room with natural light and will be lit at night, so Stephan’s piece will be visible from the airport road just outside the building.
He won a competitive bid process for the project, responding to a public call for a light and airy work of art that would communicate “a sense of welcome and embrace.” He was among 48 artists who submitted proposals.
A panel of art and design professionals “saw the wonderful accessibility of the piece. It’s beautifully handcrafted, and showed the expertise that Aaron has in terms of fabrication,” Lockhart said. “There are so many imaginative possibilities of the piece. Everyone has a different interpretation, and that is something we love and strive to achieve. Our audience is incredibly diverse and has different levels of experience with art.”
Stephan saw it as an opportunity to create a piece of art that represents a pathway forward. The international terminal is a place where “you are coming off a plane and entering a community,” he said. “For me, that was the jumping off point.”
STEPHAN A PROLIFIC PUBLIC ARTIST
Whether people are arriving in the country for the first time or returning from a trip abroad, “Paths Woven” represents a gateway of limitless possibilities. Travelers will first encounter a single ladder, which leads to many ladders that turn in among themselves to form a twisted maze of connections.
Stephan, 43, is one of Maine’s most successful and high-profile artists. He’s won dozens of public art commissions in the state and across the country, including “Paths Crossed,” an early iteration of the San Diego piece, at Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis. He’s the artist who will install funky street lamps at Woodfords Corner this fall, and his super-tall table and chairs, “Lift,” anchor the lobby of the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
Stephan completed his undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at Purchase and earned his master’s degree at Maine College of Art in 2002. He studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and has landed artist residencies at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the Kohler Foundation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Tom Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, tapped Stephan to install two temporary pieces last summer, “30 Columns” and “Flat World.” One is a series of columns made of polycomposite and aluminum, painted white, anchored in the earth and arranged to fan out like a deck of cards. The other is a massive cast-iron ball, 6 feet in diameter.
Both commanded attention because of the way they were put together and the visual force of their physical character, said Denenberg, who became familiar with Stephan when Denenberg worked as curator and interim director of the Portland Museum of Art.
PIECE WAS A YEAR IN THE MAKING
Stephan understands materials and environments, and finds his creative expression at their intersection. He’s a smart artist, an inventive engineer and a craftsman with inherent respect for and mastery of his material, be it wood, iron, plastic or something else, Denenberg said.
“He absorbs context and his environment, and he’s got this serious, playful intellect,” he said, describing the artist as “almost Escher-like. You can sort of tell that Aaron was the guy in high school who was probably drawing those things. He just happened to be the guy who grew up to execute them.”
Stephan spent most of 2017 working on the “Paths Woven” piece, designing it, lining up permits and materials and then cutting and gluing, sanding and re-sanding, clamping and un-clamping. It takes a long time to turn 4 miles of wood into 25 shaped ladders.
It will all be worth it, he said, when “Paths Woven” inspires awe among travelers who are weary from their journey and eager for enlightenment.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: