Heavy Industries: Big Art Business
An article from the Spring 2012 issue of Canadian Art
POSTED: MAY 31, 2012
CALGARY Myfanwy MacLeod’s giant house sparrows in Vancouver. Inges Idee’s runaway running track in Edmonton. Jill Anholt’s stormwater-treatment arches in Toronto. Douglas Coupland’s Painters Eleven tribute in Oshawa. All of them come from one place: the 36,000-square-foot shop of Heavy Industries, a Calgary company that does most of its $6-million-a-year business fabricating, installing and project-managing public art.
“Art’s kind of our bread and butter,” company president Ryan Bessant said on a recent tour. “It’s funny how public-art funding is sometimes perceived as money flushed down the toilet,” he added, pointing out that many projects deemed “public art” are privately funded through percent-for-art programs, and employ hundreds of people down the line—“consultants, construction teams and sometimes us, too.”
Heavy’s entrance is lined with tiny maquettes of projects—like Idee’s 20-metre-long raindrop and Coupland’s War of 1812 monument—reminders, perhaps, that the busy company itself had a modest beginning. In 2003, Bessant was studying engineering at the University of Calgary when his landlord, Dwayne Lehman, a developer of CNC milling machines (think large 3-D printers), decided to store some equipment in the garage. Bessant, intrigued by the technology, started working with Lehman. They created Heavy Industries as a means of demonstrating CNC machines to potential buyers. “Year one, our goal was $250,000,’” Bessant recalls. “We did $600,000.”
Heavy now employs 43 people full-time, many of them art-school grads like Dave Baxter, the “airbrush genius” (official title: coatings manager) who finished MacLeod’s birds. Baxter, sporting a handlebar moustache and a Harley-Davidson sweatshirt, said he first learned airbrushing in a commercial-arts class at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Another ACAD alumnus manages Heavy’s sculpting department, while an OCAD University grad oversees quality control.
Not everything Heavy produces is art. The company has also attracted the kind of fun, kitschy work many gallery-goers might scorn: a five-metre-tall beaver that’s the pride of Beaverlodge, Alberta; a massive Fender Stratocaster that hangs above the entranceway of one of Calgary’s Guitarworks stores; and a gigantic bull that puffs “smoke” as the NFL’s Houston Texans stride onto home field.
Bessant has carved a company niche by offering everything from design to manufacture to installation to maintenance. What it can’t build, it delivers to craftspeople, like Red Deer’s Harman Sculpture Foundry. And to ensure that business remains brisk, the company keeps track of Alberta’s public-art calls and assists client artists with related proposals.
The fruits of this strategy fill the shop floor. Current projects include Ballast, a large, stylized ship’s prow by the Los Angeles–based Canadian artist Jed Lind that will be installed outside a new Toronto condo, and TransitStory by Vancouver’s Anholt, a collection of 30 intricately welded steel figures soon to stand along Calgary’s downtown C-Train platforms.
Whatever comes next, one thing’s for certain: it will be huge.