Putting Down Roots: Roxy Paine’s Ferment

An artist, an art hero and a remarkable piece of art…

Photo courtesy KCPT Television

“Ferment,” the 56 foot tall stainless steel dendroid towering over the lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, evokes many different reactions from those who pass by. Its creator, sculptor Roxy Paine, hopes it might spur us to think about nature, and the ways our culture tames and subverts it.

If that happens, he believes he’s done his job.

As the producer of KCPT’s “Putting Down Roots,” which tells the tale of the birth, the building and the installation of “Ferment,” I have a couple thoughts of my own about this stunning sculpture. They date back to January of last year, when I first visited Roxy and his crew hard at work on it in their upstate New York studio.

Thought #1
Wow, this place is unreal… a virtual beehive of drilling, buffing, cutting and welding—part Captain Nemo, part Star Wars, part Ice Station Zebra.

Thought #2
I can’t feel my fingers anymore!

And don’t even ask about how I got locked in the barn …

But I’m glad to report that eventually the cruel Catskills cold gave way to the joys of springtime in Kansas City. In early April 2011, four flatbed trucks from Belger Cartage rolled out of the Midwest, and returned with 18,000 pounds of metal. Huge puzzle pieces for Roxy’s team to build before our eyes. In less than a week, despite gusty winds on day one and a rainstorm near the end, they did just that. The tactics they’ve developed to create this elegant “calligraphy in the sky” hooked hundreds of onlookers, who called it everything from “street theater” to “aerial ballet.” Simply, it’s a feat of artistry and engineering like few you’ll ever get to see.

The story of that frenzied installation process is fascinating in itself. The story of how the Kansas City Sculpture Park has been building upon and complementing the Nelson’s indoor treasures also makes for good TV. But what makes our hour-long documentary even more compelling, I believe, is an element of what we often call human interest. “Ferment,” it turns out, was also conceived as a fitting tribute to Martin Friedman, the advisor who over the course of 20 years, helped quietly grow the sculpture garden to its current state. When Martin decided that the time had come to end his tenure with the museum, the
Hall Family Foundation offered him the honor of choosing one final piece.

The 85-year-old self-proclaimed “yard man” (as talkative as Roxy is taciturn) has gracefully formed a genuine bond with the far younger artist. Their mutual respect and admiration in the midst of some seriously hard work served to make the sculpture’s arrival and dedication even more touching, and the twists and turns of the grueling process all the more rewarding.

“Putting Down Roots” celebrates a new iconic image for Kansas City, a career capping adventure for an unsung art world hero, and a world-renowned artist playing at the top of his game. It premieres on KCPT Thursday, May 7 at 9 p.m.

CategoriesCinematic Visual
Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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