Plesiosaur, Pt. 2

Nearly six years later, while reorganizing the previously-described shelves in my basement, I found the relics of the “dead-turtle light fixture.”

I have few fond memories of the period in which I originally conceived it, but I dislike abandoning projects in which I have invested so much time and energy, as long as there seems to be any virtue left in them. With no access to fabrication equipment, a foundry, or power tools of greater precision than a small drill press and a metal-cutting miter saw, it seemed to me that I could nevertheless treat the fixture as a sort of improvised sculpture, similar to others I have completed to a decent degree of personal satisfaction. I would rectify the unacceptable in the original artifact with additional elements, consisting of basic construction supplies salvaged from building sites or recycling bins, or (if truly necessary) purchased inexpensively at my local hardware store.

This program of improvisational modification (or perhaps, extemporized transmogrification — I’ll be a good architect and describe a relatively straightforward idea with big confusing words) went swimmingly, as it usually does for me (even if this sort of approach occasionally earned me the epithet of “anti-architect” from the docents of design when I followed it while a student). I had several crates of discarded electrician’s supplies, picked up after they were abandoned unused in one building project or another, and I modeled these additional items quickly and accurately with a flexible modern design application, Google SketchUp, to see how they might fit with the original cast and waterjet-cut elements. (On a technical note: it is a trivial matter, if the two forms of modeling are well understood, to import a sufficiently accurate replica of a NURBS model created using Rhino into a mesh system like that utilized by SketchUp. Honest.)

The room for which this piece has always been destined is a low, narrow affair with one round end; it probably remains unchanged from some previous residents’ amateurish 1970‘s attempt to restore it to its original Victorian oppressiveness. (I have a certain amount of appreciation for this ambiance!) The current electrical junction box depends from a defunct gas pipe fixture in the middle of a hexagonal muddle of crude plaster acanthus in the center of the ceiling. From a usability viewpoint, this has always been a less than optimal location for a pendant light, as the shape of the room prevents a standard eight-foot dining room table from being exactly centered in it; a light hanging from the plaster medallion center is always noticeably closer to one end of the table than the other.

So why not deal with that issue, now that I am developing a light fixture? I created a rail-system (from two salvaged five-foot lengths of copper grounding rod, some pipe-hanging hardware, and some heavy steel junction boxes), which permitted me to place the dead turtle’s rib cage over the inevitable center of the table. And I discarded the cast aluminum hanger that I had made in architecture school in favor of a “pancake” fixture box and cable armor that routes the electrical circuit from the plaster medallion to the center of the upper plate holding the LED strips inside the ribs.

I believe that the addition of the electrician’s rubbish adds to the general confusion between the organic and the crude mechanical that probably caught my imagination with this lighting fixture concept in the first place  (and which, I should add, seemed so offensive to the local nabobs of design when I was working on this in architecture school).

I also decided to replace the fluorescent lighting tubes with a pair of energy-efficient wall-washer LED strips designed to illuminate wall-mounted artwork. These were originally samples sent to an architecture firm where I was employed and then quickly discarded (i.e., “Yeah, you can have them, Lewis. They’re awful.”) because of the harsh limited spectrum of the illumination they provided. Fortunately, I had an extra cut piece of aluminum plate, a cutting test left from the previous architecture school phase for this project, that I could configure to support them. And the original incandescent spot lights on the paddle-limbs would be replaced with more modern, lower-wattage, Edison-bulb-base compact fluorescents or LEDs.

I had not arrived at a completely acceptable material for the transluscent “skin” between the “claws” and between the “ribs,” during the previous development process (no paper product seemed stiff or particularly safe enough), but while sorting some household recycling it suddenly occurred to me that I could  create the look and get the behavior I wanted with flexible HDPE sheets cut from the sides of common dairy product tubs. I discovered that the painted labels on these yoghurt containers can be quickly removed with acetone and steel wool; a brief sanding of the cleaned and unrolled plastic leaves them with a vellum-like texture that reacts like a paper product to inks and watercolor. Because of the irregular spacing between all of the aluminum elements, due to the inaccuracies (mentioned in the earlier post) that resulted from the casting and finishing processes, each element of pseudo-vellum had to be custom-shaped to each gap, but fortunately there is no premium on waste plastic yet.

Since I no longer had to conform to the stultifying requirement for “honesty in materials” prescribed in school (as if anything other than a human being can be intrinsically truthful!), I decided to give the dead turtle a full polychroming. Prior to my formal design education, I spent much of my spare time devouring books on decorative painting techniques: given sufficient quantity and types of pigment and medium, I can make almost any material look like almost any other. So the aluminum “bones” received several translucent glaze coats, primarily consisting of left-over acrylic floor varnish mixed with old ceiling paint, some red iron oxides, and other raw pigments; this was deliberately abraded to reveal the layering or even some bare metal. The salvaged electrician’s supplies and the waterjet-cut aluminum plate that supports the LED strips were all given a visually-unifying faux-rusting-steel treatment. Nylon cable-ties used at various points to secure item tightly to the aluminum were dipped in a burnt-umber-and-white-glue solution to look like old rope. Even the plastic-vellum “skins’ were treated to seem water-stained.

“So come down and see my dead-turtle light fixture,” I called up to my wife and daughters, once everything was done and the resurrected monster hung over the dining room table in its illuminated glory (or gory, depending on one’s taste in such matters), a half-dozen years after I first conceived of it.

(Only one flaw still troubles me: the LED wall-washer strips inside the rib-cage wash out, with their odd blue-white light, the yellow of the faux-stained-vellum plastic strips between the ribs. But of course, that is exactly why my old firm threw them out: who wants to illuminate art with a light that makes it instantly monochrome-ghastly? Well, perhaps I do, or will.)

”Daddy, there‘s something over the table!” warned my four-year old daughter.

“Cool! But it doesn’t look like a turtle,” decided my nine-year old daughter.

My wife shrugged, before she herded the kids back upstairs, “Looks like a prehistoric fossil to me.”

“Or something.”


The Plesiosaur sculpture relocated to a different house:

January 27th, 2011
Categories: Artwork, Design, Other Creative Work, Technical
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