July 25, 2002
If a mark of a great work of art is the degree to which it mirrors the artist's personality, then Lee Sido's latest public sculpture might be a masterpiece.
ROCKFORD, Ill.—"Harmony Atlas" isn't your typical piece of art.
Then again, Lee Sido—a man who can talk about aftermarket motorcycle parts, tuning in just the right frequency on a welding machine, and the Bauhaus school of artistic thought with equal acumen—isn't your typical artist, either.
Sitting in the Keeling-Puri Peace Plaza parking lot in his pickup with the Harley-Davidson sticker in the window, Sido gives you a peek into a life that has carried him from the Midwest to Vegas and back again while giving him the chance to develop his art and his love of all things mechanical (especially things that have two wheels and chrome and hail from Milwaukee).
Sido, a Northern Illinois University professor and head of its sculpting department, started hot-rodding with his older brother, Jim, in the late '60s, just about the time the now-famous Byron Dragway opened just down Illinois Highway 2 from Rockford.
It was from those early days tinkering with cars with Jim, a retired IBM systems developer, that Sido started nurturing what would eventually become a fusion of mechanical aptitude and artistic vision that has carried him from his first drawing class in college to a successful 30-year teaching career at three different universities.
"Quite a few people think of art as a hobby," Sido said. "Artists have to have something else. Mine happens to be motorcycles. [The] aesthetics and the form sense are very similar. It's the kind of Bauhaus, form-follows-function aesthetic. Then again, when you get into motorcycles, its kind of 'form, then make it functional,' particularly for show bikes.
"The technology for fabricating is pretty much the same—the machinery, the tooling that you use," he said. "When I'm in the studio working on a sculpture and want to take a break, I start hammering out motorcycle parts. That's the kind of mindless exercise you can go into. You don't have to think about the pure aesthetics of art."
Originally conceived as a globe by project benefactor Jim Keeling, who borrowed the concept from a peace-theme display he saw at a Colorado church, the sculpture's design evolved into a version of the Blaeu wall map of 1605 (sometimes dated 1606), which depicts the world inside a pair of two-dimensional planar circles.
The flat design, which doesn't hide any land masses from full view as a globe would, works better for viewing and for the general theme of the plaza, Sido said.
"I worked out a design with a globe, and I wasn't very thrilled with it, because it's been done before," Sido said. "Viewing it now, a person can take in their entire world from one point of view. The idea of peace, that's really what it's about—that there's no difference between any of the geographic regions."
Sido used 4-in.-OD 304 stainless alloy tubing for the outer rings and support members of the sculpture and 3/16-in. 6061 T6 aluminum plate for the land masses that adorn it. To give the land masses their distinctive finish, Sido used a copper coating that is up to 85 percent pure when it's still wet and then sealed in the finish with three coats of clear automotive epoxy.
The finish welds for the 15- by-34-ft. sculpture had to be done on-site, because Sido's studio isn't even that big.
Sido built "Harmony Atlas" flat on the floor in five separate pieces, fastening them together and then taking them apart again for final transport. The pieces then were trucked to the site, where they were lifted into place by a crane, welded together, and fastened to the granite base.
In fact, the first time Sido saw the sculpture in its final vertical form was "here on-site, when we assembled it," he said.
Not one to ignore the slightest technical aspect of his art—he requires all sculpting students at NIU to learn gas metal arc welding (GMAW) their first semester—Sido is fluent in weld-speak. He said he used a Miller 251 power source, one of many welding machines he owns, because it can handle two metals with one unit.
Finding the right power source was critical for the amount of welding Sido had to do to finish the sculpture, which contains more than two dozen 24-foot sticks of stainless tubing and more than a dozen 5- by-12-ft. aluminum sheets. The final product weighs in at a hefty 7,000 pounds.
"The beauty of that is that it's a digital machine," said Sido, who used GMAW exclusively on the project. "You can just tune it exactly to your material. When you're using two opposed metals, it's great to be able to have one machine there and just switch back and forth between the guns."
As suited as Sido was for the Peace Plaza project, even a gambler wouldn't have bet money that Sido would take the lead role in it after his return to Rockford from Las Vegas.
Sido and his wife, Nancy, had just bought their house when they happened to run into his childhood neighbor and friend, Judy Barnard, at a local restaurant. Barnard happened to be heading up the Peace Plaza project for Winnebago County, which owns the 2.5-acre site on which the Plaza stands.
The three got to talking about what Lee was doing and what Judy was doing, and before long Lee was offering to take a look at doing the sculpture.
Everything fell into place after that, Barnard said.
"Lee turned out to be the perfect choice for the project," said Barnard, deputy administrator for Winnebago County and coordinator of the Peace Plaza project. "I have to think there was a little bit of fate involved running into each other."
It would seem that fate had its hand in more than one aspect of the 18-month project, which still needs some engraving work on its base and more flags around its perimeter to be officially complete but essentially was finished in June.
Though it predated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the catastrophe "redoubled the efforts," said local business attorney Keeling, one of the project's two lead donors.
"And it made it very clear that we were on the right track and it was something that was important," said Keeling, who along with First Rockford Group developer Sunil Puri headed up the $500,000 cash donation to the project. "No one was ever, in my opinion, skeptical about the project, but I think the mission statement of the project became more graphically real with the events of Sept. 11.
"Our families have put a lot of money into this project, and I think it opened our purse strings a little bit in terms of getting more of it done quicker rather than later."
Keeling said the plaza originally was supposed to have a fountain, but he is happy that the project took the turn it did with its peace poles—also part of the inspirational display at that Colorado church—ringing the plaza with 'May peace prevail on earth' written in numerous languages, its court of flags depicting the major native countries of Rockford's many thousands of first-generation immigrants, and the site's sister themes of peace and unity carved into the sculpture's polished black granite base.
"The aspiration is [for] the individual to take responsibility for the world, and that we each have our role in improving how we deal with each other and improving how we deal with other countries, and that everything in the world starts with the individual," Keeling said. "With that, plus the fact that we had this immigration to celebrate, the themes came together."
Sido couldn't be more pleased with the way things turned out.
"The thing I like most about it is the entire plaza," he said. "I think the flags, the paving, the construction details, the boulders, the wall forms, the lighting, the base, and everything is visually better than I had even imagined. Even looking at the landscape architect's renderings, it's so much more than I could have envisioned with it."