It is an achievement in itself to win a prestigious artistic commission during a pandemic — but something else altogether to bring it to fruition from thousands of miles away. It was a challenge relished by Cork sculptor Alex Pentek, whose work is displayed all over Ireland and the world. One of his best-known pieces is the Kindred Spirits sculpture in Midleton, which honours the kindness of the Choctaw Nation to the Irish people during the Famine.
Pentek’s latest commission, Unity, commemorates the black activist Charles Hamilton Houston, who played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow segregation laws.
The piece was recently installed at an elementary school bearing Houston’s name in the US capital, Washington DC. The 16ft sculpture of an allium flower is based on the icosahedron, a 20-sided shape, and each petal is formed from interlocking circles.
Pentek says he undertook significant research to find the appropriate way to honour Houston’s life and legacy and was astonished to learn of his many achievements.
“Charles Hamilton Houston was an amazing person. He fought in the First World War, in Germany and France with the US Army, which was hell on earth, we can’t imagine what that must have been like. They had the Vickers machine gun that was basically designed to turn a line of infantry men into a red mist,” he says.
Houston and his fellow Black officers were subjected to relentless racism, and that experience fortified his intention to survive the war so he could return to the US to fight segregation.
Houston said: “The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
When he returned to the US in 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, and later, as dean of the Howard University Law School, mentored a generation of young Black lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become a United States Supreme Court justice.
“I think it’s amazing, to have that depth and generosity in spite of what was happening for him personally,” says Pentek. "That quote was my inspiration. Racism is an ugly, horrible, ignorant thing that sadly still exists in every country in the world today.
"Given that this was going in Washington, and at a school named after Houston, thinking of that younger audience, I wanted to try and create something that would be open and accessible for all ages and all backgrounds.”
Pentek says he chose the allium because of what it symbolises in the practice of floriography, the language of flowers popularised in the Victorian era.
“In floriography, the allium represents unity, and also symbolises staying true to one’s principles during times of adversity. I thought this was an incredible symbol and metaphor for what Houston did and also something that captured the positivity and hope in that quote — thinking about the future and fighting for and defending those who couldn’t fight back.
"The idea of the integrated world was something he felt strongly about, and this globe in the form of the flower also speaks to the idea of one world.”
Pentek also indulged his love of maths in his work on Unity, dividing the spherical flower into 482 flowers using the principles of sacred geometry, the mathematical formulas that serve as the foundation of everything that exists.
“I wanted to communicate that maths is everywhere around us and allows things to grow. These mathematical patterns are inherent in nature. There is an underlying order to all of these things that we are surrounded by that we don’t see unless we look closely.”
When it came to making and installing the work, nothing was left to chance. The design and modelling was done at Pentek’s studio in Rathpeacon, Co Cork, and he also made test samples in the National Sculpture Factory in the city. He then collaborated with Red Pepper Forge, a steel fabricators based near Washington DC who laser-cut the required sections and panels for the piece.
“It wasn’t practical to make it here and ship it over, with Covid and everything, it would have gone pear-shaped completely. The only way to do it was to do it remotely through the fabricator. It is a very complex piece of sculpture. Each step of the way, there were exact instructions. It all went down a treat, they were a great team.”
It was an unusual experience for Pentek, who particularly missed the hands-on element of the commission.
“I love the making of the work as well as the thinking about it and coming up with the idea, which is probably the most difficult part. I love welding, sheet metals and thinking about materials. I wanted to be there really badly — they were updating me all the time with pictures.”
The piece has not been officially unveiled yet and Pentek has his fingers crossed that he will make it to the US for the ceremony.
“There will be something at some point and I am hoping to get over there. The feedback from everyone involved has been glowing so that has been really lovely. While that is important, if I was not happy with something…I wouldn’t be able to stand over it as an artist. I was very happy with the way it worked out, the meaning behind the work as well, it is there to be discovered.”
Pentek is constantly on the lookout for new challenges and collaborations, and during lockdown, he began an MFA in art and the contemporary world at the National College of Art and Design, and also worked with the robotics department in UCC.
“Last year, I did workshops with Dr Guangbo Hao in the UCC robotics department, introducing students to complex rigid origami folded surfaces as a way for them to explore deployable robotic forms. There was just such fun within the group and we held the workshops in the National Sculpture Factory, it was great for the students to get outside the laboratory space.”
Pentek is also taking up a role as artist in residence in UCC’s new design thinking, pedagogy and praxis programme this month, as well as collaborating on an artistic piece with a difference. He is teaming up with Larissa O’Grady, a violinist with the Crash Ensemble and Sam Perkin, a composer and skater, on an outdoor performance in Dublin at the end of the September.
“I am going to create a folding structure made from plywood and pneumatic pistons and standing in this structure will be Larissa, playing a piece of music. Meanwhile, Sam has composed a piece of sound art featuring the sound of a skateboard and as the structure folds down, a skater will come and interrupt Larissa’s musical piece and grind off this folded origami sculpture. It is going to be a kind of skate/disruption/ intervention sound performance.
"Skaters are often young and marginalised — the lockdown has been hardest on young people. It has been such a weird time. This piece is relating to that, coming out of a transforming phase.”
- Alex Pentek will take part in Discord, a sound/skate/sculpture performance at Meeting House Square in Dublin on Sunday, September 26. The times of the six 15-minute performances will be listed closer to the day on Twitter, @events_DCC