In May of 2021, just six months back but seemingly a lifetime ago to me now, on a bright and sunny day, I stood next to my friend and Tulsa’s Arts Commissioner, Holbrook Lawson, as we both listened to Tulsa City Counselor Kara Joy McKee and Tulsa’s Mayor, G.T. Bynum, deliver opening remarks to the assembled public at the dedication of my public art piece, “Highlight”, on the plaza where the piece now stood outside the Cox Business Convention Center in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a bit surreal.
Not because it was the first time in many months that the mayor had delivered a public address in person, rather than virtually, as had been the case for many months due to Covid shutdowns. Not because after the mayor and Holbrook, I would be standing at the podium and addressing the crowd myself – by that time, I’d done public speaking a number of times prior. No, it was just that the project which had consumed my days and, at times, my nights, was actually, wonder of wonders, wrapping up. I could literally see the light at the end of what had been a long, figurative tunnel.
The project had filled much of my creative field of vision since I first applied to the RFP back in the spring of 2019. Much knowledge was acquired in the interim due to the wearing of many hats throughout the project’s arc. The scale of the project, both in terms of physical size and budget, dwarfed anything I had worked on prior, and a good portion of the piece was fabricated within the walls of my new art studio in Colorado Springs, which was just functional enough to be used but, even at this writing, isn’t 100% finished. (I should be able to close out the permit in the next few weeks, though some interior aesthetic touches still need work).
But back to Highlight: I’m very grateful to the project for a lot of reasons, but one of the chief ones is how it broadened my horizons; how it opened eyes to another level or scale of project that, prior to Highlight, wasn’t even on my radar. It stretched my capabilities in a number of ways, and in the end, showed me that given enough time and head scratching, not to mention assistance – truly, a small village came together along the way to assist me in a variety of ways – my vision for the project, with some minor changes, was possible. If just a bit crazy.
The rest of this post contains the remarks I gave when it came my time to speak that afternoon, as well as additional words I had intended to speak that evening. Speaking of assistance, you’ll note the number of people – by no means an exhaustive list – assisted with the project, if you read on.
“Thank you Mayor Bynum, City Councilor Kara Joy McKee, and Tulsa Arts Commissioner Holbrook Lawson, for your words and for your leadership. Thank you all for coming for the dedication of Highlight, which is, after all, both for you and about you.
I’ve timed my remarks, and, as was unfortunately true of the entire timeline for the design, fabrication, and installation of Highlight, they run about twice as long as directed. Thanks for your patience. You just can’t rush art.
Before I finish, I will attempt to name every person who had a direct hand in making Highlight. Tonight, at 8:15, I will spend a little more time thanking a few key people without whom Highlight simply could not exist, and we’ll have the first official lighting of the bulb. [FYI, during the first lighting that evening, I completely forgot to thank those few key people and instead spoke about one aspect of the piece’s underlying meaning. Not the first time I’ve gone off the reservation, and, no doubt, not the last. Lo siento. At the end of these remarks, I included the words I’d intended to say.]
So yeah – a giant lightbulb. Possibly the world’s largest, pending confirmation from Guinness Book of World Records (pause):
What’s the big idea?
That’s the essence of the questions I wrote out to no one in particular, way back when, as a 20 year old aspiring artist, sitting all alone one Saturday morning in my employer’s art studio in New York, where I both worked as his assistant and lived.
Why am I making art, I wrote, when I know, deep down, that it’s meaningless? Perhaps I should be doing something else with my life. Something altruistic, maybe. I don’t know. Who knows, who cares? Soon thereafter, I boxed up all the artistic hopes and dreams that had been born only a few short years prior, at the feet of my high school art teacher, Floyd Tunson. I boxed them up along with my paints and brushes and put them on a shelf. When or if I’d ever take that box back off the shelf, I didn’t know, and didn’t much care.
Fast forward 23 years later to February 3, 2012, a highly charged day coinciding with the celebration of the life and art of a dear professor and climbing partner who had passed away a year prior, I returned to art, or it to me, perhaps. Ever since that time, nearly everything I have sculpted or drawn or painted has, in one way, shape, or form, involved the motif of the human hand, and as for meaning? Man, oh man, at times the meaning that springs out of the work is just too much to contain. It’s like the runoff that courses off of the spillway of a high and full mountain reservoir in Colorado, where I live and work. Water that’s somehow meant for other purposes down the line. Things I may have only a vague notion of, if I have any notion at all, when I first conceive of each new piece.
When I first mulled the idea of applying for the 1 percent for art Sculptural Installation Project, I really wrestled with how to marry my “go to” hand motif to the “Request for Proposals” that I read.
The request said that Tulsa was born as a boomtown, at the front lines of the oil rush. It said that the risk-taking and innovation that was inherent in having the faith to drill a hole in the ground in turn ushered in a period of innovation and invention in the 20th century.
It mentioned Tulsa’s Art Deco skyscrapers and its storm management system. It said that the city’s spirit of risk-taking and innovation was matched by a community that cares deeply about one another, building the second-largest community foundation in the nation and a United Way that is in the top one percent in per capita giving. It ended by saying that Tulsa is building a world-class city and desired an art installation that would be a landmark for Tulsa’s future.
As I said, I really wrestled with how to apply the hand motif to the project symbolizing invention, innovation, and community yet maintaining the motif’s integrity. It doesn’t fit “hand in glove”, pardon the pun, with every project. Eventually, I realized I needed to find some other motif, some other symbol, some other way to respond.
It wasn’t long after coming to that conclusion that I looked up – quite literally – from the couch where I sat in my living room and saw a piece of art on the wall that had been there for years. It was the fanciful hand tool I’d made while taking a bronze casting class at an art center a few years before art reentered my life.
During that class, looking for something to cast into bronze, I took an incandescent light bulb in one hand and a screw driver in the other, and attached them together. I encased them in a plaster mold. Removed them. Poured hot wax into the mold and swished it around. Let the wax cool. Removed the new tool from the mold, and, after a few more processes, translated it into bronze. I took it home.
Truthfully, I wanted to call it a light driver from the get go. A tool one uses when they need to shed a little light on the subject. A handy tool to have in one’s tool box.
But the name for them that more often came out of my mouth, when referring to them, was “idea driver”. Still quite a handy tool to have. Are you at a loss for a way to solve a tricky problem? Grab your idea driver.
Wondering how to respond to the request for proposals that became Highlight, that’s what I did, figuratively and literally. Once my typical hand motif was off the table, I reached for the idea driver and, with just a few additions and subtractions, conceived of Highlight, which, as you can see, consists of a 2 prong plug, an electrical cord, and a lightbulb.
The 30,000 foot view of the piece speaks of Tulsa’s past (the plug), its present (the electrical cord), and, most importantly, its future (the light bulb). Let’s begin with Tulsa’s past.
Among other things, the plug has to do with Tulsa’s past periods of rapid transformation, achieved in part due to a reliance on the land’s natural resources, like oil, and its status as a central hub along to Route 66. Discerning eyes will note that the plug’s shape hearkens to a certain local building, but also, it’s blue dome-shaped top might be said to represent Tulsa’s early stake in sky and space.
The present, as symbolized by the electrical cord, ties past with future. Among other things, it speaks of historical connectedness and societal interdependency. It speaks of the current age of hopeful ideas fused together across vast regions by fiber cable and orbiting satellites – a digital frontier, no less invigorating than territories of yesteryear, and no less a conduit to prosperity. It’s an increasingly connected world open for any and all who possess the childlike courage to explore.
Finally, the light bulb: As the universal icon for invention, resolute problem solving, energy, enlightenment, and understanding, the light bulb is the ideal symbol for the future – both Tulsa’s and for all who share the city’s high aspirations and vision.
The light bulb is intended to be the piece’s focal point. It speaks of a bright and shining future for Tulsa. Of an inventive, innovative one.
However, and from the get go, the light bulb also speaks to the notion of shedding light on the subject, and my final proposal for the art selection committee put this aspect of the meaning of Highlight front and center. On the title page, just below the word ‘Highlight’, I quoted one line from the James Taylor song ‘Shed a Little Light’. I encourage you to Google James Taylor’s ‘Shed a Little Light’. As you listen to the song, do what all artists do, and mull the possible connections between the lyrics and the current moment for Tulsa – a momentous occasion that ties Tulsa’s past with the future it desires for all four corners of the city, south, east, west, and north. Especially north.
That’s all I want to say, for now, about the piece.
Before I wrap things up, however, here’s what we’re going to do. [I then explain how we all would join to give one hand clap for each of the people I list below who contributed much to the making of Highlight.]
Wayne Rienzo, aka Spyderwayne
Finally, all the unnamed people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting here in Tulsa, from the waitresses at Jinya Ramen Bar, where I still want a t-shirt, to the owners of the Airbnb’s my assistant, Niels, and I have stayed in, to receptionists at the A Loft Hotel, to the policemen who practiced their bagpipes at mid day during the installation, to the construction workers who built us a bridge to get one of the two cranes we employed to the site, to the art selection committee, and on and on it goes.
All of you assisted to one degree or another in the making of Highlight, and all of you assist in making the Tulsa of tomorrow.
Please give a round of applause for yourselves.
As you can see, despite not employing the motif of the hand when making this piece of public art, it couldn’t have been made without hands. Both literally and figuratively, ‘many hands make light work’.
Which you’ll see with your own eyes if you come back tonight, at 8:15, and, Lord willing, any night afterwards for years into the future. Thank you so much, Tulsa!”
And finally, wrapping up this long post, here are the words I had intended to speak that evening during the first lighting event, to thank a few key people more fully than I had had time to that afternoon:
“First and foremost, my wife, Nan, with whom I hope to soon vacation to celebrate 30 wonderful, swirling and twirling years of marriage. Thank you for walking your talk.
Second, Holbrook Lawson, without whose bright and shining countenance and contributions the Tulsa you know today would be a vastly different and diminished and grayer place. Without whom my life, and the life of my family would be the same.
Third, Niels Davis, my studio assistant, who stuck it out with me through the past Covid-infused year and a half of the journey of creating Highlight. Back when he began, Niels told me that after helping me with Highlight, he was probably going to go back to school to become a psychologist. While we were in the midst of installing Highlight, just a few short weeks ago, I was happy to hear that he now intends to pursue art. Niels’ hands, by a wide, wide margin, have touched this piece the most, and the same could be said regarding his mind and the many problems that needed to be solved during the making of the piece. Only God can create ex nihilo. Can create something from nothing. Without Niels, however, none of the art you see here would exist, or if it did, it would look vastly different.
The same could be said for the fourth person on my list, my friend and mentor, Floyd Tunson, who, if you don’t care for Highlight, is, along with Niels, the primary person at which you should direct your ire. He’s the one who, as my high school art teacher in the late ‘80’s, first inspired me to be an artist. He’s also the one who, in May of 2019, when I was trying to decide whether or not to apply for this project, said pointedly and emphatically that not only would I apply, but that I would win.
Fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth: Richard Flaming, Elli Johannsson, Steve Horner, and Matt Everett, structural engineers, without whose expert guidance the work would not be standing before you today.
Next, the men and women at American Pipe Bending, Isam’s Painting and Sandblasting, and Taylor Crane and Rigging, who, with skill and dedication, turned obstinate, utilitarian raw materials into art, and then gently placed that art onto this plaza. And what do you call someone who turns raw materials into art and places that art in places private or public? You call them artists.
Artists like Carl Germany, who made the veritable heart of the main element of this piece, the light bulb, come alive. Artists like Whitney Forsyth, ceramicist, who, along with her husband Elliott and daughter Simona, first introduced me to Tulsa.
Thank you all for coming tonight. I truly appreciate it and hope you are proud of what you helped to accomplish.”