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Walking Wounded

Mammoth metal sculpture almost turns back to scrap

A year and a half ago, local arts collaborative the Industrial Arts Co-op unveiled the Walking Stick Rocket -- the IAC's largest-scale project to date: a massive dinosaur made from leftover scraps of Pittsburgh's industrial past. But in early April, unknown to IAC members, the Rocket, stored at a scrap yard in Newcastle, PA, suffered a near mortal injury.


"[IAC artist] George Davis went there on a whim to check in on it, and a truck there on a delivery had backed into it," says IAC and Walking Stick Rocket artist Tim Kaulen. "It took out a back leg or two -- [the Rocket] totally collapsed. All the pieces are still there, but there are some very fundamental breaks in the structure."


The Walking Stick Rocket project began almost four years ago in a foundry in Lawrenceville, according to Kaulen. It was built largely from wooden "patterns" -- three-dimensional prototyped shapes used to build molds for the casting of steel parts. Two years later, the Industrial Arts Co-op debuted the Rocket at the Brew House Association's garage space. The first thing anyone -- art connoisseur to 2-year-old -- noticed about the Rocket was its size: 20 feet tall, 20 feet wide, 35 feet long. But, according to Mike Leahy of online gallery Grainbag.com, there's more to the piece than size.


"The scale, sure, but also the finesse with which they put it together" made it impressive, says Leahy. "From a conceptual standpoint, it exceeds its form -- it's intense. And the way it was constructed from die-casts, with all custom-welded fittings -- it further binds it to this region geographically and in terms of the [industrial] culture."


Leahy's online gallery has Walking Stick Rocket offered for sale -- at a modest $65,000. With no buyer stepping to the plate, the IAC took up an offer to store the piece at the Newcastle scrap yard, where a kind of unofficial museum contains what Kaulen calls "a good collection of weirdo art." While Grainbag.com's phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook with offers to buy Rocket, Leahy says they were trying to devise a special marketing strategy for the piece. He also feels it should never have made it to the market anyway: "It's a shame that one of the institutions here in Pittsburgh didn't snatch it up," says Leahy. "The whole thing is constructed from Pittsburgh's history."


Maybe there'll be another chance. Tim Kaulen and his Industrial Arts Co-op comrades are determined to rebuild the Rocket, despite the scale of such an undertaking. "There are thousands of hours in that piece to begin with," says Kaulen, "and thousands more now necessary to rebuild it."


Kaulen and the IAC are no strangers to the risks of public artwork. Their Space Monkey piece, another large-scale sculpture, was confiscated by Norfolk Southern Railway after it was hung on the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge in the summer of 2001. But Kaulen sees Walking Stick Rocket in a different light. The IAC is attempting to negotiate a settlement from the company whose truck damaged the sculpture, in order to pay for refurbishing the piece. (Walking Stick Rocket itself was uninsured.) According to Kaulen, IAC will rebuild the piece whether or not outside money comes through.


"The piece itself was one of the bigger accomplishments we've had -- to produce that piece out of the materials it is made from," says Kaulen. "God knows I've lost a ton of artwork over the years by allowing it to be in difficult places, but now I feel it's our responsibility to not just make art, but to rebuild and upkeep what's made."

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