by Tim Gilmore, 10/17/2023
Some days Stella Lee thinks they’re rays, not of light but of the sea, that their fins are wings, coming together like prayer before opening up like expanse of the spirit. She used to think they were geese, when they hovered above the escalators at the airport. Some days she walks slowly underneath, looks straight up into them. It seems something she should not otherwise see, too intimate, personal, but also somehow given unto her to do so.
These laminated lauan plywood forms are abstract. David Engdahl, architect and sculptor, calls the concave “swooping” form Ascent and the convex folding form Descent. It’s more accurate to call them motions or movements than forms, but form is only the illusory capture of motion. Form is a section or segment of movement in moment.
When they floated over the escalators at Jacksonville International Airport from 1980 to ’89, millions of people passed beneath Ascent on their way to Miami and Atlanta and New York and Stockholm and Johannesburg and Bombay and multitudes passed beneath Descent on their way into town. For locals, the sculptures were homecoming. They hovered over the escalators because no one could carve their initials in them up there and they wouldn’t compete with ads and announcements and commercial space on the walls. You could see them from the lower level and the upper, so that as you escalated or descended, paradoxically, they did move, as you stood still.
Longtime locals still associate them with the airport but they’ve hung suspended by stainless steel cables here beside the cafeteria in Building U at Florida State College of Jacksonville’s South Campus Student Center now for nearly 35 years. Weightlessly they levitate, 800 pounds each, including 20 pounds of barbed sheetrock nails, beneath this Brutalist waffle ceiling. Each steel cable could hold a sculpture by itself and each sculpture has eight cables.
On those days when Stella walks intimately underneath, the forms seem yonic, and when they do, she feels legitimized. They almost embarrass her, but don’t, and their not embarrassing her is the point. Then the fins that are wings become labial, the space within vestibular. They tell her that though we are other than our bodies, we are also our bodies and then the forms that are sea rays that are birds become also angels. Metaphysics becomes her and the next world is in her own body and she’s arrived.
In the summer of 1979, United Press International called David Engdahl “the bearded young artist” who’d “commissioned himself” to “break the pattern.” It was a shrewd and bold move. Not only could Dave create lyrically supple sculptures, his laminated wood “lamelliforms,” but he had the acumen to circumvent the traps of the trade and marketplace.
Dave, then an architect focused on airport design for Reynolds, Smith and Hills, had been sculpting since the early ’70s. The “lamelliform” was Dave’s sculptural outgrowth of lamella, a plate of tissue in bone, a membrane. When he exhibited his lamelliforms at the Loch Haven Art Center in Orlando in April 1976, The Orlando Sentinel noted, “His intricate sculptures are made of laminated wood and resemble birds, shells, mushrooms and horns.”
Three years later, he told the newspapers, “I could have done 15 pieces for myself, sold them and made a profit, but I felt taking the money and returning it to the citizens of Florida was really the most logical use of state money.”
He acknowledged, however, “It was not a fully altruistic venture.” Commissions go to artists who’ve already had commissions, and larger ones to those “who have proven they can deal with the limitations and demands of such projects.” Artists “submitting” work have to wonder how much those who make selections weigh the portfolio and résumé versus the individual work. At it’s worst, it’s the Matthew Effect: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” So Dave tricked the system. Even as the Matthew Effect reinforces the status quo, creativity counters it, making, when and where it can, its own opportunities.
Here’s how he did it. In 1978 Dave applied for and received a $2,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant through the Fine Arts Council of Florida, then spent his own money creating Ascent and Descent. He’d anticipated spending 800 to 900 hours on the project, but spent 2,000 hours altogether. He offered the sculptures to the City on permanent loan and the Jacksonville Port Authority accepted them on behalf of the airport.
“I rigged up my shop with ropes and pulleys to maneuver things around myself,” he recalls. He made Ascent first. “I didn’t have room to store them both at the same time, so the Port Authority took the first one and I started on the next one.”
The impersonal letter Dave received in 1989 had surprised him. JIA was being renovated. The airport would no longer have room for Ascent and Descent. The artist had less room for them than the airport did. So he contacted city, state and other arts institutions until the sculptures “finally found their champion” in FCCJ President Chuck Spence, who not only gave them a home but purchased several other David Engdahl sculptures.
When Dave last stood within the folds and striations of the 7’ x 7’ x 15’ sculptures, his beard and those wild wings of hair hadn’t yet turned white. All the November/December 1989 edition of Outlook, a Florida Community College of Jacksonville marketing publication, had to say was that the South Gallery had acquired Ascent and Descent on permanent loan and they were “being enjoyed by all who enter the South Campus Student Center.”
Ascent and Descent are David Engdahl’s largest lamelliforms, and just as his sculptures sometimes resemble antlers and insect wings and snail cones and razor shells and mussel shells and horns and bones, sometimes the fins that are wings that are labia of Ascent and Descent become hips, the iliac crests of a pelvis.
Stella first knew them 40 years ago, when she’d ride the escalator up to the terminal gates to fly home to see her mother in Cleveland and when she’d descend to the baggage claim to pick up her suitcase. She’d wondered where they’d gone. Then she started over, decided to go to college, and taking basic math and English classes, she found them waiting for her here. Whenever she’s felt stuck, they’ve moved her. With Ascent, she’s transcendent, rising into a larger wholeness, while Descent brings her into declension, the ideal and archetypal potential of human beingness made real in her own specific kinesis.
When Dave was about four years old, growing up in Pennsylvania, his father set him up with his own workbench and tools in the basement, mostly, he says, “so my dad could keep his own tools in usable shape.” In a retrospective talk he gave in 2017 called “Going For It Every Day,” he said, “When I was making noise louder than usual, my mom would open the basement door and ask, ‘David, what are you doing?’ My response was always ‘Just chockin’.’” When he was 12, he built a clubhouse out of scraps he’d collected from nearby construction projects. When he was 33, in 1973, he came to Jacksonville to work for architect William Morgan.
After a 44 year architectural career and 28 years with the Haskell Company, Dave retired as chief architect in 2007. The following year, Hope, his wife of 42 years, died of the rare autoimmune disease Scleroderma. On this cool, cloudy day in the middle of October, 2023, David is 83 years old and he’s been working in the workshop all morning.
Though Ascent and Descent were at first on permanent loan to the college, as they had been to the airport, he gave them to the college foundation in 2012. Two scale models await placement in the storeroom in the South Campus Art Gallery. In addition to commissions, David Engdahl has sculpted 308 lamelliforms since 1971. He never repeats one. Each sculpture is a new start and a separate challenge. Each one teaches him something new.