Urban Organics 

Artist Michael Cordell sculpts for BW

Michael Cordell likes to draw on Post-it Notes. No need for fancy sketch books, art pencils or easels. Just give the man a 3- by 5-inch pad of the yellow notes and a ball point pen. Oftentimes a little sketch is the first step in what becomes a metal sculpture. Thanks to two particularly compelling drawings done early last fall, Cordell was chosen to create the newest public arts commission for downtown Boise. His sculpture will permanently grace the side yard at the corner of Sixth and Broad streets.

The unveiling of Cordell's piece happens First Thursday, August 2. Much anticipation has surrounded this particular unveiling, partly because of the open call to artists to apply for the commission, but also because of the location. The area is busy with car and foot traffic, and it's also home to the offices of Boise Weekly, the perfect place for a piece of public art. But the piece has to be strong physically as well as visually, since it's location is open to and unprotected from weather conditions, passersby, automobiles and the possibility of damage from any of the above. Is Cordell's finished piece just the right blend of creative vision and durability for the corner of 6th and Broad? Absolutely.

Cordell, previously a photographer, started working in metal after, as he says, he "became entranced with a few blacksmith friends' works." He describes his winning design as "a tight cluster of tall, skinny aluminum, copper and stainless-steel-clad verticals mixed with forged steel tapered uprights to form a vaguely plant-like array." It will stand nearly 16 feet tall when installed.

Cordell's plant-like array consists of eighteen separate pieces, meticulously forged, hammered and pressed. Some of the components look like skeletal eucalyptus branches; others look like enlarged reeds or yucca plant leaves, curving and reaching toward the sun.

The nearly $10,000 cost of the project was underwritten with proceeds from the 2006 BW Cover Art Auction, held in November.

BW: How did you find your way to building this sort of metal tree?

Michael Cordell: Well, it's derived from organic forms, but it's not a tree. It's 18 vertical members derived from organic shapes and forms that sort of talk about the growth process of plants, and it's in varied metals: mild steel, aluminum, copper and stainless steel. And it's modular, in that each one of these 18 forms slides down into its own mounting hole. It's a cluster of tall, skinny, organic shapes.

How did it come to you?

The 18 shapes that comprise the cluster were simply an arrangement that came to me as I drew. So it's just an arrangement of shapes that came to me in response to the materials, too. I'm really interested in stainless steel, and the things that I've been able to do with it are kind of interesting. There are these copper pieces that are folded and are there to sort of metaphorically describe the end of the growth process and the things that would contribute to that, such as global warming or climate change. There is another really significant part: There are three vertical pieces that go up and sort of curve away from the center of the footprint of the piece. They go up 12 or 14 feet, and while they're going up, they curve out away from the center. And they're heavily textured in patinated copper. And there are also small interlocking pieces that are made to look like some plants—they have kind of a green stalk, but it's a stalk that is segmented. Instead of a leaf, this is sort of inspired by those kinds of growth forms. And so it's just this whole amalgam of these different shapes all clustered together. It's not like just one big thing that's a sculpture.

How do you feel about having your piece as a permanent fixture downtown?

Well, I'm kind of into it. One of the more interesting things was, when I was down at the site, I discovered it was on the Boise tour train route. I was down in this hole, hearing the train go by and doing their whole routine, and I thought, they're going to go right by my work every day. The great thing with public art is each piece is radically different than other public art. There's some really interesting public art that we have now. Those rocks in front of the County Courthouse are pretty compelling and pretty interesting. Most of the public art we have [in Boise] is pretty decorative. It's not that my piece isn't decorative as well, but it is different in that it's in such a funky, kind of forgotten little neighborhood that actually has quite a lot of traffic. It's going to have a lot of people who will see it, and I'm really excited about that.

This was a completely unique experience because it was devoid of the need to remain consistent to some local context. We could do anything we wanted, and it didn't have to relate to a building, a politician, a children's program. It was really unique in the regard that we could do anything we wanted and it just did not have to be associated with anything of local importance. Instead, it would hopefully be appreciated as a piece of artwork that was made by someone who lives here, for here. It didn't have to relate to the building or advertise anything, promote the city. It could just be art for art's sake, and as such, have importance.

How has the process been for you?

It's been some of the hardest work that I've ever done. The mild steel forms were forged down in Pocatello at a friend's forging facility. Imagine a two-and-a-half-inch steel rod, and you get it just bright orange hot, and you hammer the dickens out of it with a power hammer ... this giant thing made for industry. And what I'm doing is shaping it under the force of this hammer.

Are you ready for the unveiling?

We started this process in November. The whole time I was thinking about this piece. And I was the one asking all the questions at the meeting, like what happens if we get done early? And here I am at the last week, really just nose to the grindstone, finishing everything up, and I had no idea. August seemed like such a long way away back then. And I've been working on it quite steadily. I have over 300 hours into this piece. And it all started from the little sketch on the Post-it Notes.

We'll unveil Boise's newest public arts piece at the Boise Weekly offices at the corner of 6th and Broad Streets, on First Thursday, August 2, at 5 p.m. Personalized pavers to surround the platform are still on sale through boiseweekly.com.

BW's First Public Art

Artist Michael Cordell's thanks, dedication and artist's statement

First to the rear-end rescue units. Profound gratitude is expressed to Margo and Dennis Proksa of Blackrock Forge, Pocatello, Idaho. Their inexhaustible professional assistance and patience made my vision possible. Thank you for tolerating all the late-night calls and for the devotion of so much of your personal time and resources.

The wacky-but-worth-it department head is John Randles. His input was beyond significant, usually bearable and of great personal importance. Terrific support is also acknowledged from Tom Sullivan and his helpful staff, including Nick Hough, at Metal Supermarkets.

The following people have shown me the way, helped a great deal and/or provided the kind of understanding required for me to proceed. Special thanks to Tom Bray, Richard Butler, Sally Stevens, Allan R. Ansell, Roger Freeborn, Sally Freeman and the memory of Richard Mason.

I deeply appreciate the assistance of Alex Hormecheverria at Yanke Machine and of Keith Jones and Chris Holladay of AHJ Engineers. Also, the extreme efforts of Karen Bubb shall not go unsung. Thanks for all your help—we're in a better place because you're here.

Without the love and sustained encouragement (not to mention the occasional kick in the pants) from Terri, April and Kathleen Dillion, I just don't know where I'd be. Terri, you are everything to me. Thank you so much.

Thanks also to all the helpful professionals at Farwest Steel, THB Inc. and Pacific Recycling.

Big thank-you to Tammee Basack, Boise Weekly staff, Matty Shafer, Michael Miller, Jason Lewis, Danielle Johns, Dr. Robin McRae and Andy Traub.

Best wishes to Ben and Melanie, always.

Thank you all so much. Apparently, it takes a village for artists, too.


This sculpture is dedicated to the memories of my father, Glenn D. Cordell; my mother, Mariellen "Nicki" Shindledecker; and to my grandmother, Nina R. Griffin.


If it were a 19th century concerto, my sculpture would be formally entitled "Fantasia on the Growth of Highland Fauna in Varied Metals." But this is not a 19th century work. And I am wary of artwork titles. It is more important to me that the viewer relate to this sculpture in his or her own way, unguided by a moniker. I think I'll send it into the world "Untitled."

The commission of this work represents a rare opportunity in public art—the option to not have to wed an artists' vision and dialogue with craft to some construct of local relevance. Relying on a big back story that associates the visuals with pioneers, politicians or a children's program usually serves to dilute the priorities of the "art" part of public art. Little more than sameness and decoration occurs when the easily digested needs of the public are catered to. I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity unbridled by the need to strike a balance with conservative politics and patriotism. Having said that, let me state that, to some degree, I am ashamed to have had such a chance to have worked so long and hard on this and not have it address our penchant for war and the short-sighted greed and incompetence of the Bush presidency. That my sculpture will be associated with this time in our history is cause for personal concern.

I guess, this time out, I will offer this visual statement to try to help my neighbors look beyond all that, maybe touch something deeper or to just help have a better, more interesting day. Boise Weekly has been courageous in wanting to keep the process open and simple—indeed, to even do it in the first place. The goal was always to enliven the neighborhood, create an environment more suitable to foot traffic and to reclaim a bit of calm in a once-deteriorating section of town now faced with increased use. I hope I have done my part in making that all happen. It has been an honor to participate in this effort. I commend Sally Freeman and Tyler Bush for their ability to hang in there, trusting that their efforts and the proceeds from last year's cover auction would be well invested.

Thank you.

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