Thinking big

Share on Nextdoor

In the back corner of the parking lot at Cranbrook Art Museum lies a flatbed trailer, large and lazy, hogging more than a few parking spots designated for students. If it weren't for the pointed arch in its spine, the kind that looks like it belongs in an ancient Indian temple, there'd be no sign that the unhitched trailer is actually a remarkable art project in the making. The trailer's owner is Shan Sutherland, better known to his friends as the Viking, an unusually modest young man with a 40-foot thesis.

What began as a creative free-for-all last fall for the grad students of architect-in-residence Bill Massie has turned into Sutherland's personal project. The young artist wants to build a 5,000-gallon wall of water and drive it across the country.

Sutherland, 30, received his bachelor's degree in art and biology at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, and then did some work at University of Georgia, primarily cast and fabricated sculpture and silversmithing. After that, for three years, he worked for a Cincinnati-based company called Trentec, repairing hydroelectric dams and de-installing nuclear power plants.

That job led him from Colorado to Nova Scotia. While he labored, Sutherland wasn't at all concerned about making art. But after his last job, he immediately made five sculptures. About his hiatus from the art world, he says, "It was a starvation period — a good one."

Had it not been for that "starvation period," Sutherland may have never found himself inspired by what it takes to power the people. "I remember repairing a chain of dams located in southern Tennessee, known as the TVA dams, built in the 1930s and '40s. I was really inspired by what I saw, just the magnitude of a dam's endeavor and what it accomplishes. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people got together and made these mountains to hold back water."

Once he decided to go to grad school at Cranbrook Art Academy, Sutherland found that even as a metalsmithing student who was eating and sleeping in the studio, he couldn't forget his experiences working with water because it's not only an essential element of life, but an integral part of commerce that creates and maintains society as we know it.

"Take Las Vegas, for example," Sutherland says. "That city is unbelievable. The whole place is built on a 100-mile-long system of pipes that bring water from somewhere else. There's also legislation discussed every couple of years about taking water from the Great Lakes out West where they need it. I'm not sure whether it should be done or not, but it will probably happen. If nothing else, these are miraculous things."

He was considering his ideas about water transportation — specifically, how water leaves the Great Lakes unseen in anonymous tanker trucks and rail cars — when architect Massie bought a trailer for his grad students to play with. Sutherland happened to be taking an elective in the department, and when the rest of the students wanted to move on to other projects, he asked Massie if he could have the trailer to design and build his vision.

Although still in the planning stages and waiting on funding from sponsors, Sutherland's "Wall of Water" consists of a 5,000-gallon tank, made from clear acrylic and covered in a perforated metal sheet with a pattern that has a dizzying moiré effect to attract the eye. The holes in the pattern are small enough so that, when standing at a distance, spectators can see through it. The tank will be shaped like a lens, thereby capturing and magnifying the surrounding landscape like a painting.

Most artists who assume the responsibility of a large-scale sculpture or installation are privileged enough to have funding and resources, let alone the manpower, for a cumbersome undertaking. Even with the help of a couple of his friends, fellow students Matt Miller and John Cline, Sutherland's project seems arduous. But he's working on such a large scale to help the public size up a problem: The moving of commodities is an unbelievable achievement we take for granted. And with shortsightedness, things can end catastrophically.

In reading John McPhee's best-selling book The Control of Nature, about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' unrealized plan for flood control of the Mississippi River, Sutherland learned about such quick fixes. "Over the course of the last 150 years, the Corps increased the size of levees, which caused the water level to rise because it didn't have anywhere to go, and then those levees sank into the mud. That was part of the problem in New Orleans. If they did something a little bit less direct, something that would allow the river to flood occasionally, it might help."

Still, Sutherland doesn't want to cast aspersions; he believes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the brightest people. "My fear is not that we do one thing or another, but that we don't appreciate the gravity of it, so we make impulsive decisions or find temporary solutions that end up creating problems."

He doesn't want to get on a soapbox and proclaim his opinions because he doesn't believe it's his job to create propaganda. (Although it's ironic that the trailer's arch references the Roman aqueducts, which were just as much a show of power as any Roman public sculptures were.) "The problems I'm interested in don't have simple solutions, so it would be kind of arrogant of me to think I have the answers."

The artist plans on driving the trailer out West and down South. (He's checked, and it's pretty easy to rent a semi from a freighter service.) His first stop will be Burning Man, a weeklong festival of performance and installation art held each September on a playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. In bringing his piece there, the grad student doesn't want it to simply sit pretty; it's his intention to put the tank to work as one of the trucks irrigating the streets of the site, keeping dust storms at a minimum. By doing so, he'd be using art as a way to showcase what is already a feat of logistics, money and engineering.

He's also reaching a much wider audience than your typical gallery-goers. It's not been an easy task, resolving the architectural and engineering concerns, while making the vessel visually exciting and presenting the issues he wants to address. "Even if specific issues slide across the table, that's OK. At least I've convinced people to look and absorb." The design of the arch also allows everyone to walk under and investigate the sculpture — when it's parked, of course — and "bridge the distance" between artist and audience.

At 30 years old, Sutherland is reminiscent of another artist in the late '60s who, still young, thought big: Robert Smithson. With his earthworks, Smithson created sculptural installations that employed the natural landscape as his canvas. Smithson worked in remote locations or at old industrial sites that have been forgotten or intentionally ignored, places he calls "non-sites." Sutherland references one such Smithson work in which he placed trapezoidal mirrors in the ground so they reflected the landscape to create a completely alternative space, drawing the public's attention where there was none before.

Aside from traveling to Burning Man, Sutherland is contemplating taking his "Wall of Water" to Atlanta and San Francisco, two cities with vastly different natural resources. What's he going to do with the tanker truck after voyaging? Conveniently, his parents — mom a sculptor and dad a furniture maker — live on 130 acres of land. (No wonder this Viking thinks big.) But before he does that, he should consider cruising down Jefferson Avenue and road-tripping to River Rouge. Detroit is totally accessible — as a "non-site."

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.