They’ll tell you to go big or go home. At Poetic Kinetics, they opt for enormous.
If you’ve never been to Pershing Square in Los Angeles, you can run a quick Google search on the park and learn, first, that it was dedicated as a public space in 1866; second, that it’s run by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; and third, that it merits headlines like “How Los Angeles Got a Pershing Square Everyone Hates.”
That last bit is courtesy of Curbed Los Angeles in an account of the park’s jarring original design scheme. The writer cites the LA Times in a perfect explanation of what went wrong with Pershing Square: “The square’s dramatic architecture is so harsh in its efforts to discourage the homeless and drug dealers that other people feel uncomfortable there too.”
The irony is that the park ended up deterring everyone except the people it apparently intended to discourage.
Enter Patrick Shearn and his collaborators at Poetic Kinetics.
In an interview with Crixeo, Shearn described the park in a way that echoed previous reports: “We studied the demographics and what was going on in the park,” he says, “and at any one time there were maybe 10 people in the park; predominantly homeless, some children with their nannies…and super hot, concrete and really uninviting.”
These observations were made as the artist and his team scouted the location at Pershing Square for one of their large-scale art installations. Going in they knew the park was not being used as it was intended. The Poetic Kinetics team approached the park’s management with a proposal to use the site for a temporary art project.
“We [knew] they were desperate to get people in the park,” Shearn says. He also knew the potential impact of a successful installation, and this one had a twist: by assembling the piece overnight, the team at Poetic Kinetics took an entire city by surprise.
“The security guards didn’t know it was coming. No one knew about it,” Shearn says. “All the people in the tall buildings around it were taking pictures, and it generated a lot of buzz.”
Media buzz, for sure. A park that had long drawn the ire of a city was suddenly the center of a spectacle.
The installation was called Liquid Shard, an example of a design Shearn refers to as skynet. It stretched 15,000 feet and floated above the park, crafted of strands of holographic silver Mylar and looking every bit like its name suggests: a refractory wedge of liquid metal bringing the wind and air to life above Pershing Square. An insider video of the shard was posted on Facebook and garnered 18 million views and 500,000 shares in two weeks.
A year later those numbers have grown.
“Even more importantly,” Shearn says, “people — hundreds and thousands of people — were underneath it every single day, and they weren’t just hanging out with the art. They were bringing their soccer balls and their lunches.”
Shearn describes how an idea to bring the citizens of Los Angeles to Pershing Square became a social experiment.
“I think bringing art to the people and making it accessible — it doesn’t have to be inside of a big giant building with a bunch of fancy words and giant ticket price for art to be appreciated,” Shearn explains.
“It doesn’t have to be inside of a big giant building with a bunch of fancy words and giant ticket price for art to be appreciated.”
If you look through the portfolio of Shearn and his team at Poetic Kinetics, one thing becomes clear. While they’ve made everything from a giant flower to a marionette shaped like a terra-cotta warrior to an astronaut, their projects have one constant: they’re big.
No, actually, a Jackson Pollock painting is big.
The sculptures created by Poetic Kinetics are enormous.
One of their most iconic pieces, an astronaut called Escape Velocity, famously required five semi-trailer trucks to be transported to Coachella. Fabricating that piece took a crew of 20, and actually operating the piece required another 20 to 25 people. Even so, Shearn states that the limiting factor was not the time, the engineering or the energy of the team. It was doors — and a visor.
The entire astronaut was designed digitally and constructed in pieces. It was broken up in ways that were illogical but practical. The main criteria: they had to fit out the door and into the trailers. The project is a perfect example of the spirit of collaboration that is central to Poetic Kinetics.
Shearn can rattle off the skills and talents of his collaborators — CAD designers, welders, sewers, carpenters and the list goes on. “I generally have no trouble finding a good-quality team,” Shearn says. “We are very collaborative, and I really respect and value everybody. I couldn’t do it without them.”
The team of 40-plus people who produced Escape Velocity demonstrate the symbiosis that is Poetic Kinetics. If the task didn’t seem crazy enough, something about the way Shearn describes it make one realize that if he could have gone bigger, he would have.
“[The design] was driven by the size of the visor — it was the biggest plastic hemisphere I could find and afford,” Shearn says. The rest came together around that dimension.
Shearn’s penchant for going bigger traces back to his time living in Alaska. Early on he spent his summers in the far northern state, and he became a true resident in high school. Ten years later he had acclimated to a region very different from the continental U.S. He describes a culture that revolves around winters where the cold has to be taken seriously and some resources are hard to come by.
It all adds up to a lifestyle that Shearn summarizes as “full-on.”
For him, that included going out and digging an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a Caterpillar D9 tractor. His time working in construction introduced him to heavy equipment, but that particular project was just a way to pass time on the weekends. The casual way Shearn relates this morsel of his personal history is deceptive. Listening, one would think every Alaskan kid spends their free time manning 100,000-pound construction vehicles. That nonchalance is a testament to his comfort working at the scale Poetic Kinetics is known for.
“I started working at a scale and seeing things at a scale, I wasn’t afraid of sort of bigger — bigger projects, bigger things — and I think it is sort of a no-fear and knowing what is possible that pushed me into this sort of art and this kind of scale,” Shearn says.
While the easy answer to why Shearn is attracted to doing projects that push the limits of size is Why not? his actual explanation is more eloquent.
“The astronaut was clearly iconic, and from a distance you have one experience, and as you get closer, it becomes more intimate,” Shearn says. He describes his approach to design as a process of layering so that the observer is continuously surprised. That might mean Angelenos looking out their windows or up from their morning commutes to see Liquid Shard, or revelers at Coachella spotting Escape Velocity in the distance.
“It is a tremendous thrill to just stand there with the crowd and have them react and respond to the experience and the art, without them knowing who you are,” Shearn says of his times at Coachella. Getting there himself was a different experience. From Alaska he made his way into the film industry, working with visual effects and then animatronics.
“I was in Louisiana working on a film, and I got a call out of the blue from somebody who had seen an installation I did,” Shearn explains. That piece was a giant flower he did for Burning Man. That was long before his Coachella days, and the desert festival is still a favorite venue. Shearn admires Burning Man for its ability to attract artists and festivalgoers who appreciate the process of creating and experiencing art.
The call was an offer to work on a piece that would be known as The Warrior and the Girl. The sculpture was of a giant terra-cotta warrior that could be manipulated like a marionette, but the project was much bigger. From a design standpoint, it required a choreographed show, 20 minutes in length, that could be repeated four times each day for 17 days. Johnson & Johnson wanted to commission the piece to showcase the Terra-Cotta Army, the famed sculpture soldiers the company had invested resources into excavating many years prior.
“When the terra-cotta warriors were coming out of the ground, they were being destroyed by some kind of fungus,” Shearn explains. A scientist from Johnson & Johnson stepped in with a solution: an antifungal agent that would save the terra-cotta warriors. This led to Johnson & Johnson essentially taking over the excavation.
Here one sees why Shearn separates his career as an independent artist from his role as creative director of Poetic Kinetics. In the latter, he is the leader of a fabrication company, founded with producer Cynthia Washburn. The role means taking calls with clients, sending proposals and hoping something hits the mark.
Johnson & Johnson had clear expectations, whereas Coachella was more about understanding demographics.
“We did the snail, mantis, astronaut…. The entire time we were sort of at the bleeding edge of what they were willing to pay for for art, and it wasn’t really the kind of art that I would prefer to make if someone gave me, you know, $300,000 — I don’t think I would really go and make a giant snail,” Shearn says. Which leads to the question: what would he make?
Picture a wheat field stretching into the distance. The tall stems bending as the wind flows over them, creating undulating waves that personify the movement of air masses as they coast, unseen, across the landscape. Picture then a skynet, something like Liquid Shard but larger, stretching to meet the horizon so that the observer is standing in a world bounded by the waves of wheat and of an enormous living sculpture animated by the same gusts of wind, the sky essentially becoming a mirror of the earth below.
That is the picture Shearn paints when describing his dream project, and the image is a cross between science fiction and dreamland. Another dream is to run a ribbon along the length of the High Line in New York City — and Shearn says his head is full of other projects like that. He’s working on a concept for a sculpture of an iceberg. He describes it as something like a sculpture imbedded in stone before an artist carves it out: an iceberg could melt just so and reveal a work of art.
The idea ties well into the messages Shearn says he would like to send in his art.
“I have quite a few pieces in the pipeline that are addressing global warming, addressing wetlands, social issues generally,” Shearn says. “I think working at the scale that I do, you have an opportunity to sort of magnify things and kind of make them unavoidable.”
“I’m inspired by nature all over the place, I’m inspired by humanity’s ability to be creative as much as I am dismayed by their ability to be destructive,” Shearn says. While he knows he could lean a little further into politics with his art, so far he’s chosen not to. Whether he will in the future is hard to predict. What he can say is that he’ll continue to explore new means of creating art, new materials and new challenges.
“I really feel that working within constraints is a more creative environment than just sort of a blank check and an open space,” Shearn says. His art comes packed with constraints — whether that means concealing a forklift in a sculpture, keeping to a budget or making sure a skynet doesn’t catch the wind and become a sail.
The payoff, according to Shearn, will be “better impact and leaving the world a little bit better than I found it.”