The late artist Roy Lichenstein once said, “Art doesn’t transform. It just plain forms.” And officials at Harpring Inc. in Louisville, Ky., know that some art is harder to form than others.
For the past 10 years, the company has been lending its expertise and fabrication skills to several local and national metal artwork projects, including the restoration of the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville (see “Riding out the storm,” October 2004). But according to Kevin Harpring, director of GCH International and vice president of its subsidiary, Harpring Inc., the company confronted its biggest challenge when it took on the making of a 40-foot-long and 16-foot-high steel sculpture.
That sculpture is now in Las Vegas where it is on display for guests at the new five-star hotel Aria, part of the 16 million-square-foot, $11 billion CityCenter development owned by MGM Resorts International.
Harpring Inc. fabricated this metal sculpture for the Aria hotel in Las Vegas.
The diversification really took off in 2004 when Harpring Inc. merged with Louisville-based machinery manufacturer Griffin, and engineering and sales company Griffin Cardwell out of Fleet, England. The three businesses formed GCH International, and according to Harpring, the merger provided the 65-year-old company with the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, including metal artwork.
“The MGM (project) is the culmination of years of doing artwork,” Harpring said.
He also said that the $1 million project is the single-largest art project the company has ever worked on. If it had not been for Harpring Inc.’s experience in metal art projects, the Vegas project might not have happened, he added.
It all started when the George M. Raymond Co., a general contractor in Las Vegas, tackled the construction of the Jean Philippe Patisserie, a cafe owned by legendary pastry chef Jean Philippe Maury.
The restaurant at the Aria isn’t a typical dessert shop. Like most things in Vegas, the desserts at the cafe are over-the-top pastries crafted with artistic flair.
When it was time to build the cafe - Maury’s second in Las Vegas - he decided to again hire artist Norwood Oliver. He had built what is billed as the world’s largest chocolate fountain for his cafe at the Bellagio, another Las Vegas resort. This time, Philippe commissioned a piece of steel and glass from Oliver that would surround the cafe’s 85-seat dining area.
Raymond hired Harpring.
“They had the contract with the (developer) MGM and had seen some of our projects,” Harpring said.
Oliver sent the rough sketches of his metal art piece to Harpring. The idea behind the design was to create a structure that looked like balls of water running down a series of metal pipes. Those pipes curve in a variety of directions and include a number of other metal elements such as handrails, sails and balustrades. The largest portion of the sculpture includes a 40-foot-long and 16-foot-high piece that towers over the diners. The metal pieces in this portion crisscross in horizontal curves and surround custom glass frames.
The ambitious drawing had to undergo some changes when it got to Harpring Inc. to make the metal fabrication possible. Harpring said those drawings were then entered into a 3-D computer-aided drafting software program. The 3-D image was then sent to Oliver for approval; then the real work started.
DeadlinesHarpring Inc. worked for a full six months on the project, starting in October 2009 and ending in March.
“We were on a very tight schedule,” Harpring said. “We worked around the clock.”
That work included a great deal of collaboration. Harpring worked with Lecgi Inc., a structural engineer in Louisville, Ky., to meet Nevada building and structural codes. The company also turned to Richard Roth, an instructor at Sheet Metal Workers Local 110 in Louisville to perfect the welding procedures that needed to be done on the structure.
Michael Hughes, shop foreman at GCH International, said it wasn’t easy.
“There were a lot of processes involved,” he said. “The most difficult was getting the material polished, which included polishing the welds.”
Once Harpring workers rolled all of the steel for the art structure, each piece needed to be welded together. But the welds could not be visible. Each piece of pipe had to have a continuous flow. That is where Roth came in. Roth helped to train workers to give the weld joints a mirror finish.
Hughes said that each metal piece was sanded down to a certain grade by using a cloth wheel. Then several different grits of sanding had to happen as well as polishing with compounds.
“We had to grind the metal down and take all of the ripples out of the welds,” he said.
Every place where there was a weld joint, a mirror finish had to be applied. Hughes said that there were approximately 1,000 weld joints on the entire structure, and each joint took about two to three hours to complete.
When the metal was formed and welded, a Louisville-area glass artist came in to fit the glass pieces that would be installed between the metal sections. The entire structure was assembled in the shop as a test run.
With the sculpture successfully welded and put together, Harpring said it was time for the “heartbreaking” part - taking it apart for transport.
The structure had to be completely dismantled for its trip to Las Vegas. The finished product was cut into four separate sections and shipped by special hauler from Louisville to Nevada.
Off to VegasHarpring Inc. sent workers to Las Vegas to install the structure once it arrived at the Aria. With the finish of the project in sight, some of the biggest challenges were still looming. CityCenter management had to take out some of the development’s windows in order for the glass and metal sculpture to be moved into its location.
Once the sections of the structure were moved in, workers found that the dimensions for the space were not adding up.
“There was a big problem,” Harpring said. “Vegas is notorious for sinking foundations.”
Locations where portions of the structure had to be installed were 4 inches below where they were supposed to be. Harpring’s team had to create extensions on site so that the sculpture would be level with the additional 4 inches of space.
With that problem averted, workers started the process of putting the sculpture back together. This meant welding the pieces to the same mirror finish that was achieved in the shop in Louisville.
The finished product will definitely go down in history as one of Harpring’s more challenging endeavors, Hughes said.
“We’ve done quite a few artwork projects,” he added. “But none this labor intensive.”
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