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Creative Machines Manufactures Magic

04 Jan 2017 by BizDESIGN in FEATURES, WINTER 2017

By June C. Hussey – 

Selects Ideas Take Flight in Gargantuan Space

Creative Machines transforms public spaces with monumental sculptures and creates dynamic interactive experiences around the world with a team of “38 people guided by a shared vision of awesomeness.”

That’s according to Joe O’Connell, founder of this under-the-radar Tucson company that creates magic in a vast warehouse on Tucson’s southside. There his multi-dimensional team of engineers, artists, estimators, fabricators and assemblers, used computers, forklifts, lathes, welding tables and gantry cranes to create one of the largest and most kinetic sculptures in the world – “Wings Over Water.”

The colossal sculpture was recently transported from Tucson to Houston in time to dazzle Superbowl LI crowds. O’Connell and Creative Machines were selected for the $1.4 million commission by the Houston First Corporation and the Houston Arts Alliance in November 2015.

At 70 feet wide and 30 feet tall, the installation features two translucent wings that will beat continuously over the Fountain of the Americas in front of Houston’s George Brown Convention Center. The sculpture was inspired by the theme of migration, a governing metaphor behind the architectural redesign of the convention center. The piece pays homage to both to the migratory birds that stopover in Houston after traversing the Gulf of Mexico for several days and to the human immigrants from South and Central American who often find their first foothold in a modern economy in Houston. At night, the installation’s LED lights, fog emitters and translucent flapping wings will cast a dance between light, shadow and mist over the watery terrain below.

“Wings Over Water” emerged from a 66,000-square-foot warehouse space with five gantry cranes and clear spans up to 50 feet high. Creative Machines moved to the eight-acre site at 4141 E. Irvington Road in the spring of 2016.

Though O’Connell directs much of the creative output himself – especially for the larger-than-life sculptures – he is quite proud of the increasingly collaborative nature of his team and Creative Machines’ impressive variety of interactive museum exhibits, mesmerizing sculptures and intriguing rolling ball machines. The air is thick with creative energy. This is a giant playground for grown-ups

With no shortage of talent and easy access to world-class fabricators and suppliers, O’Connell finds Tucson a good home for his highly competitive business. With its historical roots in mining, astronomy and the arts, he thinks of Tucson as “an epicenter of creativity” that he credits for his company’s success. “While I lead most projects and take full responsibility for them, I’ve been fortunate in attracting employees who are better than I am in almost every area. I just establish the framework and lead the company in productive directions,” he said.

Tucson’s Own Thomas Edison

Drawing early inspiration from America’s great inventor, Thomas Edison, O’Connell spent his childhood near Edison’s West Caldwell laboratory in New Jersey, and his own grandfather had been friends with the Edison family, passing on stories, books and some gadgets to O’Connell from Edison himself.

As a child, he built toys out of the tools and materials his parents supplied to him. Later on, after a liberal arts education that spanned four universities (Rutgers, University of Chicago, Princeton and UCSD) and included assorted degrees and honors in physics, philosophy, history and sociology, O’Connell began working for science museums where he designed and built exhibits. He founded Creative Machines in 1995, renting his first workspace from Thomas Edison’s former shop foreman, then in his 90s. Since 2000, Creative Machines has called Tucson home.

“My wife already loved this city – she got her master’s in geology at the University of Arizona. It took me a few visits to appreciate Tucson myself. As she was finishing up her doctorate in Florida and we were researching where to live and work,” O’Connell said, “we followed advice I’d read in Sculpture magazine and looked at midsize cities with a university, deep intellectual capital, a healthy arts community and critical mass along with affordable commercial real estate prices. Tucson met all those requirements and more.”

A steady stream of successful contracts and commission work, particularly over the past few years, created the opportunity for O’Connell to relocate from a cramped industrial location on South Country Club Road to their new location. O’Connell and company have wasted no time taking on larger and more interesting projects like “Wings Over Water” and 44 exhibits for a new science museum in Santa Barbara, the company’s largest commission to date.

“We pioneer new ways to inspire wonder and imagination.” Their creations are found in museums, science centers, libraries, hospitals, university campuses, transit stops, art museums, trade shows and public spaces across the globe – including Canada, Norway, Germany, Egypt, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. Their inventions have delightful, provocative names like “Le Reve de Newton” (Belgium Pass Museum), “Chinook Arc” (City of Calgary), “Small Talk about the Weather” (Oklahoma City Arts District) and “Archimedean Excogitation” (Museum of Science in Boston).

“My most ambitious creation has always been a great company – a community really – in which employees work hard on projects they enjoy, supported by each other and the wider community of Tucson,” said O’Connell, a 40-something artist who hopes and dreams this dynamic company outlasts him.

Like Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” (also known as “The Bean”) by British sculptor Anish Kapoor and Buenos Aires’ “Floralis Generica” (also known as “The Flower”) by Eduardo Catalano, “Wings Over Water” is designed to give its host city an iconic sense of public place and purpose, one that will be imprinted in hearts, minds and digital memories of visitors and citizens alike. It remains to be seen whether “Wings Over Water” will be adopted by Houstonians as “The WOW.”

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