As the midday sun blazed down Friday on Poydras Street near South Claiborne Avenue, artist Patrick Renner took a break from welding metal to examine his work. Nearby, a truck driver honked his horn and waved.
The structure, a 155-foot-long cylindrical steel frame woven with slabs of brightly painted, reclaimed wood, was nearly done.
Renner and his crew had worked 10- to 12-hour days for nearly two weeks painting, sculpting, welding and sawing the site-specific piece at the busy intersection, attracting plenty of attention from passersby.
“We’ve been getting smiles and honks and thumbs-up,” said Alex Larsen, a Houston-based artist who was in New Orleans to help Renner install the piece. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been great.”
First constructed in Houston in August 2013, the piece, “Funnel Tunnel,” was designed as a site-specific 180-foot structure that undulated through oak trees on a median.
The original shape was meant to resemble an unfurled ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail.
Now, Renner said, the piece has been adapted specifically for New Orleans, as part of an ongoing project to install sculptures along Poydras Street.
Instead of oak trees, the Poydras median has palm trees. And although the sculpture is still snakelike, Renner said he has manipulated the shape to more closely resemble a horn instrument, such as a trumpet, as a nod to the culture surrounding the artwork’s new home.
“Originally, it resembled the idea of self-consumption,”he said, adding that it was a “happy coincidence” that the piece started to resemble an instrument after he reassembled it in New Orleans. “Now it’s become a reflection of the community of people here.”
The sculpture, which was designed to be viewed from the elevated expressway as well as the street below, joins several other pieces erected on the thoroughfare as part of the Poydras Street Corridor Sculpture Exhibition.
Presented by the Helis Foundation, the exhibition was launched in January 2013 and is a collaboration of private, civic and institutional partners including Sculpture for New Orleans and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Together, the institutions have worked since 2013 to install more than 20 sculptures by local and international artists along Poydras Street between Interstate 10 and Convention Center Boulevard, without the use of any public funds.
“The Helis Foundation is honored to continue to bring fascinating, prominent work by local artists to public view,” said the foundation’s president, David Kerstein.
The project was inspired by the work already being done through Sculpture for New Orleans, which was begun shortly after Hurricane Katrina by artist and curator Michael Manjarris with the mission of lifting the spirits of New Orleanians through public art.
Prior to Renner’s piece, the latest sculpture to come to Poydras Street was “VOLPANG,” which was installed on Poydras at Penn Street on Wednesday. The 18-foot, fabricated bronze statue was created by artist David Borgerding, who has a studio in New Orleans and whose artwork graces public spaces and private collections throughout the South.
Lin Emery’s “Octet” also was recently installed on Poydras, between St. Charles Avenue and Camp Street.
Emery, a longtime New Orleans resident, is known for her kinetic sculptures that incorporate motion and aspects of nature.
Overall, organizers said, Renner’s installation was designed to give local and visiting artists a support structure and a way to network.
Renner said “Funnel Tunnel” fits right into the spirit of the project, noting that it was designed to be a grass-roots, community effort that anyone could participate in. He didn’t just invite fellow artists to work on the piece and network; he also enlisted the help of random people he met when he came to New Orleans two weeks ago — including the homeless.
“I love this dichotomy. You have people associated with museums, and then you have a lot of people who are currently living on the streets and are just interested in art, ” he said. “It’s been a real gift to work with them and talk with them and give them an opportunity to express themselves.”
Each piece of wood was painted individually, and volunteers were given the freedom to design the pieces however they saw fit.
Renner said that way, he hoped his project would allow the participants to take pride in the work and also to feel some ownership of it.
“I like to provide a container, for people’s ideas to be mapped into it,” Renner said about “Funnel Tunnel.”
“I’d rather provide a conversation point than a didactic piece.”