After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused the collapse of a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, engineers realized it would be cheaper to replace the eastern span with a more seismically-sound design rather than retrofit the old bridge. Once crews completed the new span in 2013, the California Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans, began the demolition of the old bridge. Using explosives, Caltrans crews took down parts of the bridge over five years.
There was a lot of interest from Bay Area artists to make steel from the original bridge available for repurposing. The Bay Bridge Steel Program was created in a partnership with The Oakland Museum of California and the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee. Applicants wishing to use the steel had to propose projects for the public and meet other criteria including celebrating the bridge’s importance as an iconic structure.
In 2017, The Bay Bridge Steel Program awarded 15 artists, designers, and design firms parts of the bridge. Some only asked for a single rivet. Others asked for much more. Sean Paul Lorentz, a sculptor in Petaluma, was one of the artists and is currently designing his first large-scale abstract expressionist sculpture. It is an 85 foot long, 15 foot high cantilevered piece.
Click through the photo slideshow above to see Lorentz’s work on the sculpture and play the audio piece to learn how he created it.
Sean Paul Lorentz is an abstract expressionist, so when he submitted his proposal for the steel, he did not want to give an exact design because he knew it would evolve over time. Lorentz says he doesn’t want people to know what the piece means to him because he wants them to decide for themselves.
Lorentz received about 10 pieces of the bridge’s iconic latticed truss, a total of 140,000 pounds of steel. Caltrans sandblasted the lead paint off the steel, so now that the pieces are exposed to open air, they have started to rust and take on a new color.
The Bay Bridge was assembled using hundreds of thousands of rivets. Lorentz is removing them one by one. It is the first time he has worked with riveted steel, so part of the challenge has been to find a way to remove them quickly and efficiently.
Steel is in our phones, our cars, and our homes, even if we don’t always recognize it. Lorentz says working with “a material that we are also surrounded by constantly is super interesting, and that relationship is part of the thought process” when designing his sculpture.
It is the first time Lorentz has worked with riveted steel, so he has spent hours trying to identify the best way to remove the rivets. He then adds bolts to attach the joints he is welding.
Lorentz’s piece has evolved from his original idea. He says part of his process is playing around with the steel and understanding what it is capable of and what he might be able to construct with it.
Lorentz is the studio assistant manager for the abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose studio is in Petaluma. The piece made from the bridge steel will be the largest Lorentz has ever created on his own; he typically works with materials he can fit on the back of his truck.
Working with steel means the material—and the final creation—will outlive the artist. It can withstand harsh weather, don’t need a lot of upkeep and the sculptor doesn’t need to be precious about having it stored in the right environment.
Lorentz says until he comes out of the yard and the piece is installed and in its permanent home, he won’t be able to see the end vision. He wants to create a piece that people can spend time with, climb on and interact with up close.
Working with a crane was an important part of the early fabrication of the steel. Lorentz says there is a permeance about large sculptures because once they are installed, they tend to stay in one place. Smaller pieces can be moved around, and might end up in someone’s backyard or get lost in the shuffle.
Lorentz does not yet have a permanent home for the final sculpture. His dream is to have it sit somewhere along the Petaluma River, which he thinks will have the potential to draw people to this North Bay community.
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