Perched in a cage
“Humor and fun are underrated elements in artwork,” says sculptor Jeff Erickson. “I think that public art should be engaging and interactive and fun.”
He’s putting the finishing touches on three, 9-foot-high bird cages. With perforated steel perches to sit on and oversized bronze pigeons milling on the ground, they should provide some needed cheer to the worse-for-wear block of Third Street, where he’ll install them in a few weeks.
Erickson’s bird cages are among seven sculptures slated to appear over the next couple of months on surface streets along the train trench as part of the city’s Retrac Public Art Bench Project.
Erickson, a 31 year old with construction-worker build and English-major glasses, works in an industrial metal shed on a sage-covered lot in the northernmost part of Sparks. His cavernous studio is filled with tables and tools. A sectioned-off office area is neatly stuffed with desks and a drafting table. Test pigeons made of red-brown oil clay sit on a shelf (the bronze ones will be larger, per the city’s request). Taped to the wall is a New York Times article about the most talked-about public art project in years, The Gates—those miles of saffron-colored nylon that waved in the breeze for 16 days last winter in Central Park.
The conceptually bouyant magic of The Gates is a clear influence on Erickson’s bird cages. They’re inviting. They’re accessible. They’re “international orange"—the color of the Golden Gate Bridge and the opposite hue of deep blue sky. It’s designed to make whatever is coated with it eye-popping on a clear day.
Not all his work is so lighthearted. Erickson makes waxy paintings and small wall sculptures out of poured resin, welded steel, carved salt and electric lights. He uses strong imagery: crosses, targets. He explains how his work refers to the politics of things like land use, art history, war or religion. Though his outdoor sculptures and paintings are driven by different motivations, he borrows aesthetic ideas from himself all the time; a bird’s-eye-view blueprint of the cages looks almost exactly like one of his target paintings.
Erickson usually shows his elegantly edgy sculptures at galleries in Portland, Ore. This is his first foray into public art, which tends to require months of negotiations with suppliers, manufacturers, insurers and city officials. He’s been honing the requisite diplomatic finesse for years by embracing other people’s engineering problems with an eagerness that makes the work sound like a barbecue at the beach. He’s the sculpture-lab tech at the University of Nevada, Reno and formerly the preparator at the Nevada Museum of Art. Erickson was responsible for installing Dennis Oppenheim’s building-sized wedding rings in front of the museum and served as a liaison between the architect, the museum, contractors and sub-contractors when the NMA’s new building was under construction.
So last summer, when the city issued a request to artists for sculptures with a comfortable (but not sleepable) seating area, Erickson went straight to the drafting table. Half a year later, he recounts the hassles of arguing over liability insurance and rescheduling around unevenly poured concrete without cracking a grimace. After his first experience with a public art project, he’s ready for more.
“I guess I roll with the punches pretty well,” he says.