Handyman About Town 

Tom Poremba works behind the scenes of Boise's public art

An artist may be responsible for the vision of a public art piece, but sometimes installing or even creating the commissioned work can be quite difficult. Sometimes the wall on which a public piece is to be hung is the side of an old brick building, and the canvas is a giant aluminum trout that not only needs to be affixed to the wall, but also done so in such a way that it can spin as the artist intended. Other times, the problem is how to secure 166 standing, fiber-optic tipped rods to create da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. For solutions, local artists call on Tom Poremba.

A structural engineer for architectural and engineering firm CTA by day, Poremba spends much of his off-duty time engrossed in various aspects of the arts in Boise.

He's acted in half-a-dozen local stage shows, most recently as the father in Boise Little Theater's production of A Christmas Story. You may have seen him as Emerson in Spontaneous Productions' The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, for which he is also credited with the innovative set design. However, offstage, he also applies his real life skills to his art interests.

"[On] most of the art pieces I've worked on in town, the artist doesn't know what they're building," laughs Poremba.

But he is a natural problem solver, taking an artistic vision and figuring out how it can work.

"To me, no is a dead end. I never want to say no. If you rethink something or take a slightly different tack, then you can achieve it."

At CTA, Poremba says his job is to figure out how to build a building.

"I ask, 'How can we build it?'" says Poremba. "In architecture, looking good or not is subjective. Whether the building will stand up or not is objective. An architect has the design, but I have to make it happen. You can't just draw up this wild design that can't stand up."

And it's a simple physics lesson that applies to art as well. Unlike architectural firms, however, local artists don't keep structural engineers on their payroll. Instead, they rely on an expert to give them a little—hopefully pro bono—advice.

For Poremba, it started with the Letterheads' 25th anniversary convention in 2000. The group met in Boise and over a weekend, painted three murals in downtown: the Stearns motorcar on the Adelmann Building on Idaho Street, the Hannifin's sign at 11th and Main streets and the Basque mural on Capitol Boulevard. The largest of the three, the Basque Mural, was painted off-site on four panels and then installed on the exterior of the Fronton Building.

"They told me it's going to be about a quarter-inch thick aluminum, but it's 48 feet long and we want to hang it on this old wall of crumbling bricks." Poremba, who had been roped in by a friend, had been asked to help figure out how to hang the four 8-foot by 12-foot panels so that the entire mural appeared seamless despite the wall's unevenness. He and a friend worked on it every Saturday for a month until installation day when they hung the mural before a crowd of onlookers.

After that first project, Poremba helped work out similar hanging issues for Mark Baltes' Penny Postcard: A Hometown Greeting on Boise City Hall, as well as Marcus and Skyler Pierce's Kilgore Trout (the infamous spinning fish) on Sixth Street. He's been involved with a few projects that ended up not getting commissions and solved smaller problems for businesses like Hotel 43. Two of the largest and most involved pieces on which he's collaborated were with artist Amy Westover.

When Westover received a commission for Grove Street Illuminated, the three aluminum rings embedded with graphics and text at the corner of Grove and Ninth streets, she says she knew what her vision for the piece was, but didn't know how to make it happen. She called Poremba.

"Amy called me and said, 'I'm an artist in town and I got this commission, but I don't know how to build it.' So we talked about different ways to do it. I said, 'Well you need a foundation,' and I gave her a steel backbone—which gave her something to apply the aluminum to because she couldn't just make it out of aluminum. She had a vision and she knew exactly what she wanted. Basically, all I did was help her figure out how to do it."

Poremba referred Westover to a steel fabrication company that could meet her needs and worked out a suitable foundation to hold each of the six arches that comprise the set of rings.

For Westover, Poremba was the necessary facilitator between aesthetics and science. It's an extension of what he does daily at CTA, seeking out that balance point at which the architect's vision is realized in accordance with what's physically possible. The hope, he says simply, is to create a building that's not only beautiful but that will hold together as well. It's a concept not dissimilar from what artists aim to achieve with work exposed to the elements; however, for Poremba, the underpinning similarities extend further.

"Working with artists is great because they put away all the requirements of function," he says. "In architecture, you have function and form. Art has no function. It cuts right to the chase. It's taking that same concept of architecture and condensing it to pure 'what's going to look good, and how do we make it?'"

For Poremba, an architect's job is to create a pride of place. Citing Timberline High School's clocktower, he says it's the centerpiece of the neighborhood and whether people like the tower is irrelevant. Instead, what matters is that it creates a community identity and gives residents something to adhere to and in which to find a sense of place.

That same philosophy drives the creation of public art.

When Westover had another large-scale sculptural piece to complete last year—Blue Rising at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center—she again called Poremba for help.

"I knew I wanted certain parts to be out of aluminum and had certain sizes in mind, but then talking with Tom, he brought a whole different view," says Westover. "I have the end view in mind; I have the vision. Tom takes that vision and says you can accomplish your vision by doing this and using these materials."

And for Poremba, it's all in good fun.

"It's fun to walk around Boise and say, 'Well, I did that building, and I helped with that art piece.' I'm happy with the pieces I've done—both art and architectural—that are part of the community, and in my own little way, I'm helping to change the look of Boise."

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