February 15, 2012
By: Cheryl Hamilton
Road trips are usually a fun, carefree adventure with a come-what-may attitude for me. I mosey and detour; sometimes the destination is never reached.
Not this time.
My sculpture partner Mike Vandermeer and I packed a van full of blown glass and metal and were about to do the 4,000 km trip to Dallas, Texas.
We had a public art commission for the Texas Discovery Gardens to deliver and install. This was to be the centerpiece sculpture in the lobby as part of the museum’s new renovation: seven different mobiles depicting different elements from the world of plants and insects. Each mobile had individual blown glass pieces perfectly balanced with cast stainless steel elements.
Although we had brought seconds with us in case of disaster (ie. in the event of a piece breaking), we were loath to deal with such an event. Replacing a broken piece of glass would also mean re-balancing the mobile. This would be a frustrating task without our studio full of tools and jigs.
Shipping was out of the question. We had spent thousands of dollars and months working on this art, and our previous experiences with shipping had all been a disaster. We had just shipped a foam core full scale mock-up of the mobiles from Texas to Vancouver only to have the crate arrive looking like it had been dragged by a chain behind a pick-up truck all the way north. It sat in our studio like an ominous harbinger from the universe.
You must drive the sculpture to Texas yourselves
We decided on a rented extended cargo van as our conveyance. We predicted there was enough room to pack the seven mobiles in the back; the tight configuration adding more support and cushioning for the trip. The van would be easier to drive than a cube truck, and we would need a vehicle to drive around in when we were in Dallas. We also had to drive home and I had always wanted to do a road trip reminiscent of all the rock and roll bands that I had read about. A cooler of refreshments in the back, along with the leftover foam from the unwrapped sculpture would make for a luxurious trip.
Some of the glass had already journeyed across the border as we teamed with Erich Woll at Benjamin Moore’s studio in Seattle for some of the larger pieces. The smaller pieces were made in Vancouver with myself, Mitch Wren and Elizabeth Curry at New-Small and Sterling Glass on Granville Island. With Erich and Mitch’s skill, we produced some of the most beautiful sculptural glass I have ever seen.
How to pack a van in eight hours
Mike and I immediately began to worry about the hardships this glass would see before it got to its final home, the largest piece of glass being about 27 inches in diameter and weighing about 30 pounds. Some of these pieces had taken a team of five people in a hot shop to produce. Before it would hang in the museum in Dallas, it would have to be lovingly cold-worked and custom-fit to metal and rubber attachments, and then it would hit the road for an epic road trip.
We made a plan for the back of the van after measuring each piece of sculpture. We had constructed a plywood crate for the glass on one side of the cargo hold, which was the inner sanctum; we stored all the precious fragile components in this box. It had layers of foam and bubble wrap and would be a nightmare to dismantle at the border, but what could we do? We had a shedload of unknown trail before us and who-knows-what gauntlet of potholes and road tomfoolery lay ahead?
It took six people eight hours to pack the van. Once the final pieces were in, it was so packed that Mike had to squeeze his clothes into spaces around the sculpture in white kitchen-catcher garbage bags. This would prove to be a discussion point at every motel we checked into for the entire trip. We had a specific order in which we had to load ourselves in the van every morning after unloading ourselves for the night. My toiletries had to sit behind my laptop behind the drivers’ seat and the map book and snack bag sat on top of that, etc. . . .
The result of all of this careful packing made the back of the van look like a tightly wrapped bug’s nest. Instead of spinning a silk cocoon, this large imaginary insect had used bubble wrap and cardboard to protect its larva. I wondered if this had occurred through fluke or if it was an unconscious act, since we had been working with the bug vernacular for months. Were we mimicking the process of transformation of pupae to imago with the shipment of our sculpture? When we arrived in Dallas I imagined the sculpture emerging from the van like a butterfly from its chrysalis.
We had had months of discussion on which route to take. What would be the easiest to drive? What was the fastest route? Where was the least amount of bumps? With most of my previous road trips, the route was planned (if planned at all) with priorities like good scenery, interesting destinations for the end of the day, and sometimes (although not always possible) decent food. None of these priorities even got on the table. We had concerns like which border crossing would we have to use, what highway was the most modern and flat? Where could we park our van while we slept, knowing it would be safe?
Seeing the mountains (of paperwork)
Then there was the paperwork. There was immediately a mountain of forms and special documents that had a labyrinth of offices to report to and approvals to acquire. As we started our journey into international red tape and talking to the beadledom on the other end of the phone, we quickly realized we were in way over our heads. We would need to hire a broker.
Luckily, we knew someone who knew someone who knew the broker for the band Nickelback.
The broker gave us a list of tasks. And there were forms, tons of forms, to be filled in with only blue ink. In triplicate. We listed everything in the van, to what seemed like ridiculous triviality. Who cared how many #6 Robertson screws I had in that box? Did it really matter if I had thrown in an extra pair of vice grips and roll of masking tape? Well, apparently it did.
The Nickelback broker warned us of border guards that reacted to bad paperwork like sharks reacting to a drop of blood in the ocean. Or as Texans like to say, “like buzzards on a meat wagon”.
We enlisted our friends the evening before our departure and shared our fears of our impending carnage. The result was neatly printed labels and lists. We had our friends dutiful writing, safeguarding the contents of each box, with an inventory and photo of the contents taped on the side. Mike and I inspected each box as it was numbered and loaded into the van. We had a copy of each in a file folder to present to the border officials. We had also sent pictures of the sculptures hanging in our studio, along with a copy of our contract from the City of Dallas, to the border in advance. We had an arranged time to cross the border so they knew we were coming, and alerted the public art officials in Dallas to be ready for a phone call at the time of our crossing if there was a snag. It was a herculean effort, but worth the worry when we presented our inventory to the officials. I’m sure the acknowledged respect for protocol and the smell of fear on us had quelled any aggression or show of dominance on their part. Our van was x-rayed and we were sent on our way after a few friendly questions.
It almost seemed like an ambush of some sorts. Could we really be driving through the border with our artwork? The Nickelback broker had done the incredible task of putting together all the necessary paperwork and preparing us for the worst. He was worth every penny as far as I was concerned. It took a few miles for us to realize that we were actually on our way.
Texas or bust
The trip took us from the West Coast through the Midwest U.S. down South. We traveled through eight states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and finally Texas. We immersed ourselves in the homogenous highway culture of the U.S. Another gas-up at another giant trucker stop, mid-westerners staring gap-mouthed in the windows of our van and commenting on how far away Canada was; another Denny’s Moon-over-my–Hammy meal. I wasn’t feeling the romance of the open road when I lost my wallet and passport in Oklahoma. (Mike later lost his wallet in Dallas; we got them both back eventually.)
We slept with one eye open at every motel each night. We would circle the motel first and make sure it either had cameras in the parking lot or we could see the parked van from our room. If either of these was not possible or the vibe was funky in any way, we would move on to the next motel or sometimes the next small town. When we finally had a place to sleep for a few hours, the sound of a distant car door opening or closing would wake us up and compel us to check the van.
We drove through storms and tornado warnings, each time thinking that if the van crashed, the emergency responders would be astonished as they sorted through the colourful wreckage of shiny stainless steel and blown glass.
We shared the road with a restless cross section of humanity: mini-vans with families, retirees in motor homes, army convoys, bikers, truckers, farmers and commuters. Our “Great Canadian Van Rental” stickers feeling more and more odd the further we got into the U.S.
I could not help but think that this was a perfect way to anoint a public art installation. This was not a couple of jet-set artists materializing in the protected walls of an art gallery with this work. No, we made this artwork in Dallas, Seattle and Vancouver, and it would arrive at its final destination with the dusty patina of the road on us. Art for the people, via the people!
We arrived in Dallas on our fifth day on the road. As we unpacked the van, we discovered that with the few exceptions of some fatigued welds on some very small, unprotected pieces, every bit made it to Texas intact. The glass was perfect, each piece still pristine inside our friends’ neatly wrapped packages. Over the next four days we installed our artwork and felt the relief of getting each piece of glass up where it was finally destined.
With that kind of luck, we planned to hit Vegas on the way home.
About the Author:
Cheryl Hamilton is one half of the artist team of ie creative artworks. A graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, and her recent training in the techniques of glass blowing at Alberta’s Red Deer College and Pilchuck Glass School coupled with her metal working experience now enable her to animate light and colour within her monumental steel structures.
She works out of the ie creative studio on Granville Island in Vancouver. Cheryl has completed public and private artworks across North America.