Mammoth metallica

By Lynn Stanley

Artists bend and weld steel pipe to create life-size pachyderm for Guadalupe River Trail

July 10, 2017 - Imagine rounding a bend in the trail and coming face to face with a Mammuthus columbi. That’s what it’s like for hikers and bikers when they encounter “Lupe,” all 10,200 lbs. of her on Guadalupe River Trail in San Jose, California. Meticulously fashioned from 4,000 ft. of galvanized 1.5-in.-diameter Schedule 40 continuous roll-formed steel pipe—the mammoth is 12 ft. tall, 17 ft. long and 6 ft. wide. Lupe stands watch near the site where the bone fragments, tusks, molar teeth and skull of a 2-year-old Columbian Mammoth were found in 2005 by a hiker and his curious dog.

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According to paleontologists, the grass-eating behemoth stood 13 ft. tall and weighed 10 tons. Its spiraled tusks measured more than 16 ft. long, which would make this Pleistocene ancestor a world record-holder among today’s largest living land mammal—the elephant. Columbian Mammoths foraged their way through the southern half of North America and into Mexico before becoming extinct.

City leaders wanted to commemorate the archeological discovery and turned to artist Freyja Bardell and architect Brian Howe of Greenmeme, a Los Angeles-based cross-disciplinary firm.

“Greenmeme’s focus is the creation of artworks that promote public stewardship and raise cultural and environmental awareness,” says Bardell.

With backgrounds in environmental sciences, architecture and philosophy, the partners agree their approach is somewhat different from that of other designers. “Our process is thoughtful,” says Howe. “We listen, and then we work to tailor the piece to the project’s backstory in a way that makes people think.”

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Leap of faith

“Sometimes,” he adds, “that can be a deterrent because clients typically want to know what they are going to get up front. It’s rare that we are able to find individuals that will take a leap of faith with us. But they did and we were able to pull it off.”

Initially, the pair considered an abstract concept, such as interpreting the diet of the Columbian Mammoth at its zenith. They mulled over ideas that could link viewers to the mammoth, but not “necessarily look like a mammoth.”

One proposal portrayed the pachyderm as a compilation of “soap bubbles” crafted from stainless steel blanks nested and bullioned. Choices were ultimately whittled down to a design that married cost efficiency with plans specifying a 1-to-1 scale using bent galvanized pipe.

“There has never been a bending project this complex,” claims Howe. “Each bend was unique and there were 5,000 bends. In an ideal world, our first choice would have been stainless steel but the material carried its own set of difficulties, including being harder to weld.”

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Layering and bending the pipe allowed Bardell and Howe to capture both the spirit of the Columbian Mammoth and create a metal “snapshot” of the mammal in mid-stride.

“There was no precedent for this,” notes Howe. “You could call us gluttons for punishment because we’re students of new ways of making things. It does keep the work fresh and interesting.”

The pair also had to convince the engineer to let them make it the way they did. “Our design was in the hands of two engineers for 18 months,” acknowledges Howe. It took 1,800 man hours over nine months to fabricate, followed by three months to assemble and mount in place. Paramount Roll & Forming Inc. of Bellflower, California, aided Greenmeme with bending pipe sections and welding them together.

The big bend

Steel plate ¼-in. thick served as an inner frame to keep the pipe bending trajectories within plan. “When you align pipe, it is easy to get off track,” explains Howe. “The inner frame was the cornerstone piece of the project that allowed everyone involved to have confidence that fabrication was coming together correctly. For us, it meant peace of mind.”

The sawtooth pattern of the frame’s outer edge allowed 1/8-in. tolerance in pipe fit-up. Any air gaps between pipe and frame instantly served as a red alert to fabricators. Howe estimates there were 10,000-weld spots to fasten pipe to the inner frame. “The piece had 72 levels,” he says.

A hot-dip galvanized coating protects Lupe’s metal skin against the elements.

Long Beach, California-based Valmont Coatings-Calwest Galvanizing was given detailed instructions on the proper placement of vent and drain holes. More than 1,000 individual holes were drilled. The sculpture was disassembled into four sections to accommodate the capacity of the galvanizing kettle.

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“It really was a balance between the mechanization of pipe bending and the craft of the lead fabricator,” says Bardell. “Having a model and printed construction documents helped tremendously, but there was a lot of finessing done in the shop.”

After galvanizing, Lupe was re-assembled and loaded onto a custom low-boy trailer before making a 400-mile journey to the work site in Silicon Valley. The mammoth was lifted by crane onto a concrete pad foundation and bolted into place in July 2015. Since then, Lupe has become a favorite with hikers and locals who daily travel the community’s network of bike trails.

“To this day, the scope of the project kind of trips me out,” says Howe. One of Bardell’s favorite parts “was following the semi-truck that carried Lupe—uncovered in all her silvery glory—up the [I-]5 freeway and watching people’s reactions.” FFJ

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