Drawing on the Air
By Richard Malinsky, Arts Editor
Recently I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Tim Prentice at his compound high atop a mountain in the hills of northwest Connecticut—a veritable wind-sculpture farm with acres of grassy land; a mesmerizing place of mobiles and free-standing kinetic sculptures oscillating in hilltop breezes, such as “Windframe,” a grid of 384 closely spaced metal plates. The plates, hinged only at their top edges, swing gently, reflecting the varied colors of the surrounding environs. As changing patterns glide across the kinetic surface, it’s almost impossible to believe the only connection between adjacent plates is the wind itself:
Over the past forty-plus years, Prentice, internationally renowned wind-driven kinetic sculptor whose work appears in WTP Vol. V #6, has produced approximately two hundred commissions for private residences and numerous installations in museums and public spaces throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. His most recent international commission, “Nine Dragons,” was for the Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan:
Most of these works, if not completed because of their scale, initially were conceived at this hilltop compound where he has lived and worked since the mid-seventies. It was a warm afternoon when I visited, and I was escorted past the late-1700s main residence to what Prentice refers to as an outdoor free-standing porch—used for open-studio visitors, cocktail gatherings, and occasional musical performances. When asked what kind of music he replied, “Wind instrumentalists of course!”
We sat and talked on the porch, where an early work, “Window Zinger,” hung from a back corner, a red plastic line hinged to move with snake-like action in the wind, as if darting through the window frame:
Prentice’s kinship with the wind was kindled from an early age, when he would help his father build small sailboats, learning to sail on a nearby lake. Later in life, as a navigator for the navy, his job was to calculate the strength and direction of the wind at high altitudes.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he began his professional career as an architect. After many years in a successful practice in Manhattan, he felt it becoming stale. He was not interested in building large buildings, and grew frustrated with the time it took to complete private residences, which he described as conducting an orchestra of varying contractors without the satisfaction of really completing anything himself. He wanted more hands-on with faster feedback. It was the memory of a Calder mobile, that feeling of awe when he’d first seen it as a teenager, that influenced his decision to finally leave architecture after twelve years. At the age of forty-three he became a sculptor, with a focus on mobiles, though he had been making them—“a hobby that had been gaining on me for years”—since his first mobile made from a coat hanger to decorate his room in graduate school.
Like Window Zinger, much of his early mobiles were modest in scale, and he participated in a variety of exhibition venues. From 1975–1980 he was an adjunct professor of design at Columbia University. In 1976 he was awarded his first large-scale major commission from AT&T, and created “Slipped Disc.” This work established him as a significant artist and he never looked back:
He met the two acclaimed giants of kinetic sculpture: Alexander Calder—who validated for him that it was okay for grown-ups to continue childlike play—and came to know George Rickey very well. But as Prentice remarked, “I claimed some new territory because there was more turf to be explored.”
We went up the hill to the icehouse of the original property, now called “The Workshop.” Two full-time assistants work there—an engineer/draftsman who tracks the fabrication progress and also supervises installations, the other who sits at a bench cutting, fitting, and bending each individual piece of the huge mobiles one section at a time.
When Prentice begins a work, he starts with a drawing of the component that will be at the heart of the construction. He has a kind of shorthand his assistants understand that guides the development and fabrication:
His materials consist of hollow aluminum tubes, Lexan plastic, stainless steel wire, and sheet aluminum. He commented, “I try to use the lightest materials that will do the job. Since I am generally attaching different material, the connections are mechanical rather than welded.”
Prentice explained: “I learned to connect a series of repetitive elements with a linkage that allowed the line to warp and bend according to the whim of the wind. The challenge was to counterbalance the elements so they rested where the wind left them in a smooth curving pattern, with no tendency to spring back to a straight line. I call these pieces Zingers.”These Zingers make it possible for a horizontal plane suspended from a single point to undulate, as in his large outdoor sculpture, “White Carpet”:
Across the street in an open field is a barn where some of his large sculptures are stored fully suspended:
The upper level of the barn serves as workspace for crating and shipping:
On the lower level, smaller works are displayed in a formal gallery.
“In my current work in kinetic sculpture, I am trying to concentrate on the movement, rather than the object,” Prentice says. “I take it as an article of faith that the air around us moves in ways that are organic, whimsical, and unpredictable. I therefore assume that if I were to abdicate the design to the wind, the work would take on these same qualities. The engineer in me wants to minimize friction to make the air visible. The architect studies matters of scale and proportion. The sailor wants to know the strength and direction of the wind. The artist wants to understand its changing shape. Meanwhile the child wants to play.”
Prentice has displayed his work in both single artist and group exhibitions. He is represented by the Maxwell Davidson Gallery in New York City. His first one-person museum exhibition is currently at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, June 10–September 17, 2017.
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