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The Art Of Making Steel Appear Weightless

The artist, Cache Valley local Michael Bingham, in his studio with the skeleton of his enormous, floating astronaut sculpture.
Ali Snow
Utah Public Radio
Cache Valley local Michael Bingham in his studio with the skeleton of his enormous, floating astronaut sculpture.

When the Salt Lake Arts Council called for submissions for their temporary public art project in January, Cache Valley artist Michael Bingham heeded the call. His proposal was one of 12 selected to make their street sculpture visions a reality. 

Standing in the midst of this metal shop there’s an overwhelming sense of power, energy, and even danger. Perhaps it is from the massive machinery that fills the room, each with their own capabilities to cut, mold, and bend steel with ease.

This is the studio in which Cache Valley artist Michael Bingham works every day. We chatted together next to a giant, nine-foot tall skeleton of an astronaut made out of steel rods and rebar. When thinking about what he could make that would align with the public art project’s theme “Flying Objects,” he said an astronaut is immediately what came to mind.

“Probably a combination of things. Childhood dreams of wanting to be an astronaut [laughs]. Maybe like every other little boy," Bingham said.

"I’ve always been fascinated with space and especially the part that appeals to me is the idea of being weightless. This sculpture I’m making will actually be very heavy. I’m guessing it’s going to be somewhere over 400 pounds. But trying to make the magic where it looks like it’s floating and nothing is holding it up has been a big challenge. There’s a lot of problems to solve in doing that. But I think it’s working out pretty well,” Bingham said.

It is that problem-solving aspect that he finds so intriguing in art. Along with his own professional projects, Bingham said he’s also passionate about teaching these skills to others. He recently began teaching art at Mountain Crest High School.

“I have seven children of my own, most of whom have graduated from high school now," Bingham said. "They came out of school with very little imagination and very little creative problem-solving ability. They knew the answers to a lot of test questions, but when it came to real world problem solving, they were kind of lost. That was frustrating to me.
“I realized that there was very little in our education system that helped kids learn problem-solving skills. Sometimes I call my art class ‘problem-solving class.’ Very few of my students are going to actually become artists, and I try to help those students as well, but really, I think my philosophy is focusing on everybody else. In an art class, where there are no set solutions and no one right answer, you can use your imagination and innovation to solve the problem in a number of ways. You can use those skills in the future. You talk to any industry and any business and they’re looking for employees that can do that, that can use their own imagination and solve problems that haven’t been solved," Bingham said.

He emphasizes that some of the best stuff comes out of making mistakes. In making mistakes one happens upon some unexpectedly great ideas, often better than originally thought. As he mentioned, the toughest part of this project has been figuring out how to make this bulky astronaut appear weightless. He’s doing this by bending steel rods to make an air hose which will hold the sculpture up. This has been an exercise in patience and perseverance, with plenty of failures along the way.

“The new solution to make this air hose work is going to be visually more interesting than what I had planned," Bingham said. "But it also solves the problem. So I think it will look even better because of that.
“It’s kinda the whole process. You think you know how its gonna work and a lot of the times that doesn’t work out. So then you have to think again and try something else. There’s a lot of failure involved. You know a lot of the things I’m trying, they don’t work so I try something else and that doesn’t work, so I try something else. In our society we put this thing of how bad it is to fail. In my art class I like to present opportunities and show that it’s OK to fail because we learn something there and that’ll send us in another direction. You have to be flexible. It goes against what a lot of mainstream education teaches," Bingham said.

He says there is something deeply exhilarating about dreaming up something that has never been done before, and then setting out doing it. Bingham also has some advice for those of us who consider ourselves “non-artistically inclined.”

“I would say to people 'just make something.’ You know, it doesn’t have to be a nine-foot tall astronaut. Start small. Get some clay, get some paints, get a pencil and draw a picture. Just the act of creating brings something into my life that I wouldn’t want to be without. I think I meet too many people who don’t have that, they don’t really make anything. There’s a joy there that I hope everybody experiences," said Bingham.

To see the completed sculpture yourself, visit downtown Salt Lake City at the corner of South Temple and West temple (in front of Abravanel Hall) after it is installed on September 27.