Cork in 50 Artworks, No 6: Kindred Spirits, Choctaw famine sculpture, Midleton 

Alex Pentek's piece commemorates the Native American tribe's magnificent gesture during the Great Famine 
Cork in 50 Artworks, No 6: Kindred Spirits, Choctaw famine sculpture, Midleton 

Callie Armstrong, Lillie Roberts and Mandy Lawson of the Choctaw Nation, Oklahoma. in Midleton at the official dedication of Kindred Spirits in 2017. Picture: Jim Coughlan

The power of art to connect, inspire and tell a story is beautifully and powerfully encapsulated in Kindred Spirits, a distinctive and much-loved sculpture, located at Bailick Park in Midleton. Created by Alex Pentek, the piece was commissioned by Cork County Council in 2013 and commemorates the donation of $170 (a huge sum for the time) by the Choctaw Nation to the Irish people during the Famine.

 The piece, referred to locally as ‘the feathers’, comprises nine 20ft-high stainless steel feathers, each one unique, in the shape of an empty bowl. It is a feat of artistic ingenuity, design and engineering, taking heavy-duty materials and making them appear as light and delicate as the air that blows through them.

Pentek, who lives near Grenagh, Co Cork, says he wanted to encompass the Irish and Choctaw stories of oppression in the piece, and he did extensive research on the history of both nations ahead of making it.

“The Choctaw donation was approximately 13 years after their own crisis of oppression where they were forced by the American government from their original lands in the Mississippi region up to what is now modern-day Oklahoma. About a quarter of their population died between 1831 and 1833, known as the Trail of Tears. Then you had the Famine — a million dead of starvation, while food was being exported at gunpoint from the country,” he says.

Pentek says the symbolic nature of the sculpture allowed him to express the unimaginable trauma and suffering endured by both nations, as well as the hope offered by support in adversity.

“Picturing one of your family members dying next to you on a forced march through awful winters and a really harsh landscape and being powerless to help them — I realised that some things are beyond our imagination. So I had to try and make some symbolic representation of the events and the story. Amidst all this horror, we have one nation reaching out across the Atlantic to another, that was such an uplifting spirit of humanity that I wanted to put into the work, as well as the awfulness and the emptiness.

Kindred Spirits, by Alex Pentek, in Midleton. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Kindred Spirits, by Alex Pentek, in Midleton. Picture: Denis Minihane.

"So I created a fusion of ideas with an empty bowl form made from round-tipped steel feathers in the piece. The title came easily, as the donation wasn’t just a random humanitarian act but was informed by the fact that the Choctaw felt a kinship with Ireland as a fellow oppressed nation.” 

Making the piece was a complicated undertaking, with Pentek’s mathematical and metalwork skills being brought to bear in its creation, as well as some old-style machinery with an impressive history.

“I make my large-scale work in the National Sculpture Factory, which is a brilliant, world-class facility. I basically created a section of feathers from a 10mm-square stainless steel bar and I rolled it on a heavy-duty rolling machine which actually came from the original Verolme dockyards before it was dismantled…. you’d make a ship’s hull out of this thing, it’s huge. 

"For the stem, I got sections of six-inch stainless steel pipe and had them rolled by a company in the UK. I came up with a method for tapering the ends of the pipe, which involved curved lines, geometry and maths — I love all of that. Once I had the stem made, I was able to assemble and roll the feathers and weld them into place. The problem was that each feather had 300 veins and each one took six welds to put in place. That’s 1,800 welds on the veins alone per feather. It took a year to make.”

 Pentek says while the process was frustrating at times, ultimately the making of it became part of the story of the piece itself.

“It was quite slow and there were moments when I was kicking myself going, ‘damn, why didn’t I do something else?’. But then I was thinking of what it was representing and the humanity of the story. I didn’t want to make something homogenous and off the shelf, I wanted it to tell the story of its own making…. The beauty of sculpture, like architecture, is that we have to physically negotiate it. I wanted to create something that people could walk through and be immersed in.” 

Alex Pertek at work on his piece at the National Sculpture Factory, Cork, in 2015. Picture: Neil Danton
Alex Pertek at work on his piece at the National Sculpture Factory, Cork, in 2015. Picture: Neil Danton

 Kindred Spirits also represented superb value for money by any measure, costing €100,000. Its installation in 2015 was a nerve-wracking moment for Pentek, as it was the first time it was erected as a whole.

“It was too big to assemble in the sculpture factory, so there was no way of seeing the entire work until it was actually installed. Once the first feather went in, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is working’.” The piece was eventually officially unveiled in the presence of a Choctaw delegation in 2017.

“As the piece was being installed in 2015, a couple who happened to be from Oklahoma had heard about it and came by to take some photographs which they shared on social media. It went viral and I got an email from Chief Gary Batton [Chief of the Choctaw Nation] thanking me for remembering our countries’ shared history….eventually he came with about 20 of his tribal council members. There was more than 1,000 people at the launch — it was an epic day.” 

 Pentek says the sculpture connects with people on a ‘primal’ level, and it has attracted the attention of media and visitors from around the world. “I still get random calls and emails from people who are visiting and would really like to meet me at the sculpture. I can’t do that for everyone but it is very heart-warming that people identify with the work. People like to congregate and meet there, and there has been a lot of local activity around the work as well, it has got its own life.

 "I wanted for it to visually communicate not just the history but a bigger more broad theme that is relevant today as much ever, that we have to stand together against adversity.”

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