Feathers to ferns as Cork sculpture is off to Australia

The Cork artist whose 6m steel feather tribute to the Native American Choctaw people attracted worldwide praise is about to ship his latest creation to its new home in Australia.

The four 10.5m ferns which he has worked on over the past two years are headed for the city of Gold Coast over the coming weeks.

Final polishing of the Urban Oasis work was done over the last few months by Alex Pentek and assistants at the National Sculpture Factory in Cork. They are now ready for the sea journey through Rotterdam, Singapore, and Brisbane.

The Bantry-born artist’s Kindred Spirits sculpture was commissioned by the former Midleton Town Council as a tribute to the generosity of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma for money sent to the people of Ireland during the Great Famine of the late 1840s.

The beauty and symbolism of the bowl created by nine stainless-steel upright feathers attracted media attention at home and abroad, something even Pentek had not expected.

“It really was a pleasant surprise to see how well it was adopted both locally and internationally,” he said.

Members of the 21st- century Choctaw Nation attended last year’s dedication ceremony in Midleton.

Despite the acclaim for Pentek’s work, direct commissions are rare, and the public realm projects he specialises in are usually the result of a competitive process. It was through such a process that his Urban Oasis design was picked in June 2016 following an international call for design on behalf of the city of Gold Coast in Queensland.

It seeks to reflect the area’s history as one of the most diverse coastal rainforests, until being cleared to try growing western crops in the early 20th century.

“Nothing grew because the land was incompatible with these crops, and all the farm buildings and houses were abandoned,” he said.

“But the rainforest was so heavily rooted in the soil, that parts of it started to grow back. I got excited about the idea of these plants growing up through the floorboards and I reflected that history with the ferns.”

Each of his four shield ferns, a plant which grew heavily on the rainforest floor, is at a different stage of growth. The frond or leaf of one is curled up, the next is beginning to open, the third is fully open, and the last curling into itself like it has dried.

The artist had to make around 20,000 welds in the creation of the Kindred Spirits piece, but he believes Urban Oasis required four times as much welding.

Intended to mark a gateway to the city’s Surfer’s Paradise district, it will be seen by the area’s two million annual visitors.

Part of the AUS$300,000 (€190,000) budget assigned to the project has been used by Pentek to engage the engineering expertise of Arup in Cork and Berlin, whose reduced-fee assistance was vital to the design process.

“A lot of internal structural design work was needed to take account of wind loading and other considerations,” he said.

Amendments had to made last year when the planned location was changed to a plaza area nearer the ocean due to technical problems discovered at four-street intersection originally intended to host the sculpture.

As well as a number of works at recently-completed new school buildings, Pentek’s public realm work includes three stainless steel orchids in Burlington, in Canada.

He will also feature in a group exhibition at Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery in November with new origami-inspired work.

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