Exclusive: NYC Sculptor Joan Benefiel’s Hudson River Pilings Project

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Photos courtesy Hudson River Pilings Project

You’re walking along the Hudson River near the old Pier 42. It’s sunset, and as you look over the water you marvel at a cluster of 8-foot-tall orange figurines, balancing in precarious positions on top of abandoned pilings. Some look joyous, others pensive. Some seem like they’re about to fall head first into the water.

New York sculptor Joan Benefiel has been working with permission from the Hudson River Park Trust for the past two years to make this dream into a reality. On June 11th she previewed her Hudson River Pilings Project (click here to view a slideshow>>), displaying the first full-sized sculpture, a series of 24″ scale models mounted on poles to replicate the pilings, and digital mock-ups like the one above. We interviewed Benefiel about the inspiration behind the project, her take on public art, and how we can all play a part in making the dream a reality.

Flavorpill: How did this all get started?

Joan Benefiel: It’s been almost two years since I had the idea. It was actually a different set of pilings that got the whole thing going. I was a student at New York Academy of Art and one night I saw this amazing, brilliant orange sunset over the pile field in TriBeCa. The sunset was the orange of the sculptures. It occurred to me that the pilings looked like pedestals, and that’s how it all started. I called the Hudson River Park Trust and told them that I had this great idea. I asked if I could come in and present it, and much to my surprise they said yes. So I put together a presentation. I went in, sat down, presented it, and they agreed, again, much to my surprise. They didn’t have the financial backing for it, but they wanted to support it and help me make it happen. They loved it from the beginning — very positive, very encouraging. We’ve worked really closely over the past two years.

FP: So you had their blessing, but no money. How did you overcome that hurdle?

JB: I asked friends for small donations to get started, and their response was incredible. Something about this project really moves people. Sometimes I get a little discouraged, then something unexpected will happen where I realize how exciting it is to people again. It’s kind of endlessly inspiring in that way. I got enough money together to start to buy the materials I needed to build the first prototype.

FP: Can you talk a bit about that prototype, and the subsequent sculpture?

JB: I built the prototype to test everything out. I sculpted the first piece, which was 500 pounds of water clay over a welded steel armature, and made a rubber production mold from that. I found the perfect production material — there’s only one resin that’s translucent enough that you can make it any color that you want, and that’s surfboard resin. That’s what the big ones are made of. Plus, it still lets the light through. It was really important to me that it be able to have that change, to allow that interaction between the pieces and the environment.

The casting technique I use for these is fiberglass layup, just like you would for a boat — or a surfboard. It’s made in the exact same way. I produced this first piece and made a technical presentation. I got approval, and I have a marine team out of Staten Island who is going to do the installation. I’ve designed a cap system that will drop over the top of the pilings that will be secured with pre-drilled holes. We’ll be able to do the installation all in one day, or two at the max.

FP: Was there any ever question as to what type of sculptures you would create?

JB: I’m a figurative sculptor, so that’s my language. I don’t know that I’ve ever made a piece of abstract art in my life. I think that it’s really all about the poses that I choose. Other pieces that I’ve made are expressing different things. Personal pieces are more balled up, and less exposed. Large, bodacious, over-sized ladies are sort of my language in general. It’s just what happens when I get my hands in the clay.

FP: Can you talk about what this work means to you, and what you hope it means to others?

JB: Sure. One of the great things about public art is that everybody brings their own experience to it — wherever they are in their days, in their lives. People bring their own stories. A lot of time when you view private art, in private spaces, you have certain expectations; what it is or what it is supposed to mean. With public art it’s a little more open for interpretation, and I think that’s really exciting. For me, these pieces in these poses, in this really bizarre place that doesn’t make any logical sense, are symbolic of all of us as we’re going through our daily lives in a changing world. The sculptures change with the sky, and the light. And the water is always changing. Never, at any time, is it exactly the same.

Public art is about putting interesting stuff out there. I can’t control it, and people will experience it in their own way. I want people to experience it, no matter what their experience of it is. At the end of the day I want it to be celebratory.

FP: What has to happen between now and installation?

JB: Other than raising money, and cranking out the rest of the sculptures, the only major thing is that we are sending a scuba diving team of marine engineers down to inspect the pilings. Apparently marine borers frequently get into the pilings below the water line and eat away at them. So we have to inspect the pilings to pick the strongest ones, make the sculptures, and finish raising the rest of the money for the materials and installation.

I am still seeking donations and sponsorship. I’m also funding the project through sales of the maquettes and models. I am offering reproductions of the original three 24″ tall maquettes on miniature wooden piling bases in signed and numbered editions of 75 each. The smaller sketches are available in editions of 150 each. There are pictures on the website and they can be purchased here through Paypal.

The Hudson River Pilings Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization; contributions may be made here.