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A small-scale model of the upcoming Wings Over Water sculpture by Joe O'Connell + Creative Machines

When preparing to install an artwork in a public location, artist Joe O’Connell visits the site day and night, walking circles around the space. He chats up and observes passersby. “I’m always watching how people do things in public space and that feeds into the design.”

O’Connell and the artists, engineers and fabricators that constitute his design company, Creative Machines, ask a number of questions about a piece of artwork. “Does the sculpture make you want to pose with it? Does it have a hole that you and your friends want to run around to the other side and look at each other through it? How does it facilitate how groups interact with each other?”

For the group’s efforts, the Houston Arts Alliance awarded O’Connell + Creative Machines a $1.34 million commission to build their design Wings Over Water, an exterior interactive kinetic sculpture the size of a house, as part of the George R. Brown Convention Center renovation. The piece, dubbed Wings Over Water for its central feature—an enormous pair of wings that flutter unceasingly—will lay within the Fountain of the Americas. At night, the installation's LED lights, fog emitters and translucent flapping wings will cast a dance between light, shadow and mist over the watery terrain of the fountain. 

During the day, selfies are encouraged. “I’m really hoping it’s [a place] where people want to go to take photos when friends come from out of town,” O’Connell mentions. “We’re always thinking as we look at the model, ‘Okay, where would I take a selfie so that it looks like I’m sprouting wings?’”

Though O’Connell + Creative Machines is based in Tucson, Arizona, the artist says stainless steel sculpture is directly inspired by Houston. In his research, O’Connell discovered that the city offers better career opportunities and a higher standard of living at a lower price than many other cities, thereby attracting newcomers looking to claim their stake of the American Dream. He was impressed.

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An artist's rendering of Wings Over Water in front of George R. Brown Convention Center

He compares this human migration to Houston to seagull migration. Both human and bird have endurance and motion, he says, which is one idea behind the sculpture. “The endurance it takes for birds to fly across the gulf with no sight of land.”

From some angles the wings are literal and from others, they are mechanical. O’Connell attributes this machine-like look to the materials. The crankshaft and pushrod at the base of the sculpture, as well as the motors, bearings, and linkages are intended as a nod to Houston’s historically industrial culture. He commends the city’s ability to blend machine and nature. “I feel a certain affinity for the dynamism and the sense of art that’s really connected to technology [in Houston].”