Turning old machine gears into sculptural art

Courtesy Photos Parts removed from this vintage concrete blocking making machine at Besser Company have been repurposed into a new sculpture for Alpena’s History of Industry series. All six sculptures will be officially unveiled on Sept. 21.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on Alpena’s History of Industry Sculptures being created by a mix of local and regional artists. Today’s feature focuses on a sculpture that pays homage to the history and importance of concrete technologies, including industry pioneer Jesse Besser.

There’s a certain synchronicity to the soon-to-be-unveiled sculpture that represents concrete technologies in Alpena.

As one of six new sculptures paying tribute to local industry, the piece not only will be exhibited at the site of the first concrete block-making machine designed by late industry pioneer Jesse Besser, but it also is comprised of gears and cams removed from a 1940s-era model formerly under his watch.

“The machine would have been used under Jesse Besser’s helm,” said Brian Siegert, vice president of manufacturing for Besser Company. “All of these parts have his fingerprints on them. There’s no doubt about that.”

The parts – large scale in size and weighing an estimated 1,000 pounds collectively – were artistically arranged and fabricated together to form an expressionistic 5×4-foot sculpture. Like five of the six sculptures in the series, installation is along the Bi-Path near Alpena Community College’s Van Lare Hall.

When Thunder Bay Arts Council, the main driving force behind the sculpture series, settled on the various industries to be represented, they knew concrete technology was a given. Tim Kuehnlein, a member of TBAC’s sculpture committee, approached Besser Company about helping to create a piece that would reflect not only the history of concrete technology, but also the important industry status the company has achieved over time.

“The symbolism of the gears of the machine reflect what it takes to keep an industry/economy alive and functioning,” said Kuehnlein. “This particular sculpture involved a lot of teamwork and creativity with no one artist per se.”

Along with Kuehnlein, key to development of the sculpture were Siegert, Kevin Curtis, Brandon Ciupka and Candi Dombrowski, all of Besser Company. Kuehnlein initially worked with Siegert on coming up with a sculpture concept. Once Siegert knew the specific direction in which to head, he offered vintage parts from two extremely old machines stowed in the company’s backyard.

“Tim selected several components, basically gears and pullies off of a 1940 vintage style machine that would have been used between 1938 to 1950,” said Siegert. “We then took the parts off and put them on a pallet.”

Because each part weighed between 350 to 400 pounds, it wasn’t practical to move them around while trying to figure out a final artistic arrangement for the sculpture. Instead, Ciupka, a process improvement engineer at Besser Company, created 3-D cad models of the various parts that made them easier to work with during the creation process.

Ciupka gave his design input and also helped ensure that the finished piece was structurely sound.

“We’re very excited to be allowed the opportunity to represent the community and Besser Company with this sculpture,” Ciupka said, adding that once the overall design was finalized, all the fabrication work was done in-house at the company. A local body shop also applied an antique bronze high quality paint to help seal the piece and give it the desired finished look.

An important element of the sculpture is an accompanying plaque that commemorates the accomplishments of Jesse Besser. The plaque was originally presented to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday on May 21, 1962. A second plaque, original to the machine from which the parts were taken, includes the patent number and information about Besser Company.

While the other five sculptures in the series are being attached to the limestone pillars, the one representing concrete technologies is mounted in the ground in front of a pillar because of its sheer weight.

Along with Kuehnlein, TBAC sculpture committee member Jean Stewart has been actively engaged in the overall project. She sees significance in the main location selected for the sculptures and the limestone boulders used as a backdrop for them.

“These limestone pillars are a tribute to industry and located on a Bronze Age site on the Thunder Bay River,” Stewart said. “They honor the civilizations who creatively used the natural resources and raw materials of the area to sustain themselves. These stones depict the area’s economic activity which included concrete technology, thanks to Besser Company.”

She also appreciates the effort each individual artist put into interpreting the various industries represented through the project, which takes art beyond a gallery and out into the open.

“This project is an artistic interpretation by each individual of a complex subject, working in a complex medium,” Stewart said. “It is so exciting to see art impacting the outside world, not just the gallery walls.”