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Elevated allusions

A Gallery of sculptures by Ralph Helmick

A sculptor who designs and installs large-scale work, Ralph Helmick has for the past three decades focused on creating artwork for public spaces. Many of his commissions — which range from airports to universities, courthouses to crime labs — feature hanging objects and metal fabrications that coalesce into an arresting tableau. The overall effect can seem at once fragile yet robust. “I used to make discrete objects; now I’m much more stimulated by the context,” he says. Indeed, Helmick’s best-known early work is 1984’s Arthur Fiedler Memorial on the Charles River Esplanade.

Two of his projects for forensic labs — Exquisite Corpse and Pattern Recognition — were publicly funded but are not readily viewable by the public, requiring special access. “They felt like private commissions,” says the Boston-area sculptor, “given how physically protected they were and how those experiencing them were a small subset of the general public.” In principle he prefers private commissions because “they’re inevitably more streamlined than publicly funded projects and perhaps even more ‘free,’ but maybe they haven’t resulted in my best work.”

Most public art, like architecture, is anchored to its site. “So much of American society is about looking for connections,” says Helmick. “As an artist, the challenge is figuring out which ideas fit into the public realm.”

 Fiona Luis






Above the computer hub at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, almost 700 suspended timepieces are visible as an abstract composition from within the lab and from the street outside. When observed from one spot at the entrance, this 2014 array of timepieces optically morphs into a depiction of the scales of justice. Arbor expresses the interplay between the temporal and the judicial, grounded in an individual’s experience of time and space.

Site: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. Commissioned by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York; 17 feet high, 17 feet wide, 38 feet 8 inches deep; timepieces, stainless steel cable, steel.





Blue Lines
Seven metal rings of silhouettes of residents and police officers are suspended in the “lantern” of this 2010 police station. Viewed from below, the rings create a generational tunnel reflecting the seven stages of life. At night the sculpture comes alive from the street, the result of illumination from floor-mounted lights. The title derives from “thin blue line,” a phrase that nods to the police force as a vital membrane separating civil society and criminal elements.

Site: Nashville Neighborhood Police Station, Fort Worth, Texas. Commissioned by Fort Worth Public Art; 29 feet high, 6 feet diameter; silver powder-coated aluminum, LED lights.



Exquisite Corpse
Analysis, synthesis, and mortality are central to this 2004 artwork created for the state forensics laboratory of Minnesota. Nineteen giant aluminum “magnifying glasses” house two layers of imagery: stained-glass panels depicting cross-sections of human anatomy that collectively indicate the form of a recumbent male figure and welded metal filigrees holding the panels in place that refer to analytical techniques employed at the lab.

Site: Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Commissioned by the Minnesota Percent for Art Program. Collaboration with Stuart Schechter; 8 feet high, 5.5 feet wide, 26 feet deep; steel and stained glass.




Persistence of Vision
The building blocks of this 2007 piece are pewter portraits of Charlotte citizens controlled by 1,600 motors. During the course of a week, the heads gradually move one by one to create a three-dimensional face, which then slowly reverts into a cloud. The following week another portrait builds, then dissolves. New faces are continually formed over time, from an elderly Latina to an African-American man, an Asian boy, a middle-aged Caucasian woman, and so on.

Site: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Charlotte, North Carolina. Commissioned by the Arts & Science Council, Inc. Collaboration with Stuart Schechter; 36 feet high, 16 feet wide, 12 feet deep; pewter, steel cable, ballchain, steel, motors, processors. Photos: Will Howcroft