Fifth World Art by Robert Neff
ebook - Reconnecting With Life by Robert Neff

ebook: Reconnecting with Life

Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Google Books and iTunes and iBook

When I returned home to support my widowed mother's fight with breast cancer in 2002, I reevaluated my life's journey and direction. Read more...

7 Views of Downtown St. Petersburg


Experience the seven views from walkabout photographer, Robert Neff as they offer unique views of St. Petersburg, Florida. The postcard set or prints make a wonderful gift for the home or office. Read more...

writer > stories

Big Max Installation:

John Henry, Sculptor

St Petersburg, Florida
7 June 2011

Posts on Twitter

by Robert Neff


My intent was to stop by the Big Max installation and provide local twitter followers with a couple tweets and pictures. While there, I soon became fascinated by the installation and stayed to observe for a moment. Only, unbeknownst to me, the moment turned into a longer stay that provided a story, "Event Tweetup" and Photo Essay - all published here.

I had seen Big Max in Tampa. Though it was impressive from a distance, I had not seen the sculpture up close. So it is safe to say that I really did not have a "close" connection. However, being there in person while Big Max was being installed altered my perception.

When I first approached, I saw the three red beams on the flatbed with the crane hovering over it. All this caught my interest. This was the turning point in my appreciation for the sculpture.

I had parked down the street and as I walked toward the site, I could see people on the far side in the shade with chairs sitting and watching. I stopped and returned to my car to grab my camera and collapsible chair from the trunk. The latter is a must have for any beach addict!

As the distance closed, I was wandering what the next steps in the installation would be and wondering how the pieces would fit together. How often do you get to see a sculpture being assembled right in front of you?

I saw three red beams, tools, welding equipment, metal working tools, cabling, struts and people scampering around the site. The first beam was being hoisted high in the air. It was being held by a sling and cable from the extended arm of an industrial crane. This image created a power that ignited my interest.

It hovered for a moment and then glided over the trees. When the first red beam reached the site, I looked down to see dunnage stacked and thought this is going to be interesting. How do you lay a beam on such a small spot? This was done with great skill from the crane operator, Ken Heidt from All Crane, and intense coordination via hand signals with John Henry.

As I walked up to the group of people, I introduced myself and started a conversation. One of these people was the sculptor, John Henry. He was as down to earth as a character out of a Hemingway novel. I explained that I was here to tweet a couple pics and share this on Twitter and Facebook. I saw a blank stare not only from John but from the people around him who were listening to me. I had been here before and knew this was foreign to them. So, I do like I always do, slowed down and started to explain the process. Summary of the conversation is that I would tweet the event by taking a picture and adding a short text message and send this out into the "Twitter sphere" and add a couple posts to Facebook. This would allow me to share information and have a conversation with my followers. I am not sure they knew what this meant but at least it was a start.

The more I watched the movement, the more I was feeling a connection with the sculpture. As I was tweeting and asking questions, I was becoming part of the installation team. With great interest, I was watching the red steel beams being assembled and positioned with huge bolts, wenches, chains and steel cables.

High overhead, the arm of the crane was extended. Suspended from it was the red steel beam that was balancing in mid air and resting comfortably in the sling's straps. The weight had drawn the strap taunt and it was only connected by a hook and cable. I followed the steel line up to the crane's tip. I must admit that the cable looked too thin, but they know what they are doing!

Out in the middle of the green grass, was a lone stack of dunnage. This would be used to hold one end of the beam and the beam's other end would rest on the grass. When the red beam was lowered, the dunnage compressed but held its ground!

Around the structure were tools, equipment and metal struts that would temporarily support the assembly. A very large ladder was open and resting on its side in the grass. There was a basket on a smaller lift that the crew would use to extend their reach beyond the ladder. This would also be used to maneuvered them into position and to hold their tools. All sorts of industrial sized bolts and plates were spread out on the grass and ready to be used. This had the look and feel of an industrial site.

On the beam I saw an open hole surrounded by a raised plate with large screw holes. This is where two of the beams were going to be connected. I was wondering how the beams would be lifted, aligned and connected with steel bolts.

Another added dimension were the cables being run along the ground. I asked John and to paraphrase the conversation. John said, "Until Big Max had all three beams connected, the sculpture was not stable and required the legs to be kept in place with the aid of cabling. Each leg formed a point on the triangle and would be connected to the other." I translated this to be, the cables would would provide tension to keep Big Max's beams from pulling a spread eagle on the ground. I was now wondering about the force that both machine and man required to connect the sculpture's angles.

The second beam was raised and glided gracefully over the trees. The support crew left the truck and moved from the flatbed to the installation site. John Henry was using hand signals to direct the crane operator.

The crew was sweating in the hot Florida sun while they moved tools and bolts and struts into position. Their movement was choreographed. They danced to the rehearsed score. The sculptor, John Henry was the conductor!

Their focus was intense yet relaxed. They were doing what they loved. They were artists who were very proud of their work. I could relate and understand their passion. They were dedicated to John Henry's vision. Plus, large-scale sculpture installs are their expertise.

Red paint had been chipped and some areas were spotted in the tear down and the move from Tampa to St Petersburg's Straub Park. This had occurred the day before and had taken just over four hours to disassemble and load onto the flatbed.

A strut was built of rusty iron that had a supporting platform. The strut reached to the intersection and held the beams upright while the cables were tightened with the wench. When they raised the beams to place the strut into place, the dunnage was quickly removed by Bryan and Matt.

Once the beams were in place, John explained that there were basically five steps left. One, the support strut in the middle would be removed. Two, each beam would be lifted and the plates would be moved into position. Three, the legs would be welded onto their resting plates. Four, the three exposed cables that ran between each leg and held them in place during the assembly would be removed from the legs and attached to the plate's eyelets, tightened and buried in the ground. Five, Big Max would be painted! This all seemed simple enough of a plan!

I tweeted a couple pics and decided to take a few photographs to record the event and share the details later on Twitter and Facebook. As I walked around the site, John handed me a hard hat to wear. This looked and felt weird as I placed it on top of my trademark OR Gear "Floppy" hat. This is rated UPF 50. The extended brim provided additional protection and a slick venting system provide cooling when Florida's sun made its presence known. This is a must have for anyone down here.

Then someone pointed to me and said, "That is the Under Armour (UA) I was telling so and so about!" I chuckled and told them that when I am outdoors I always wear UA long sleeve to protect myself from the Florida sun and to keep cool. I added that it is most comfortable and quickly wicks away the moisture. Plus it dries quick and doesn't wrinkle. I explained to them that I do not mind recommending products I like and use. They asked were they could get UA? I replied, "Head down to the outlet mall in Ellington. They have a store!"

I rejoined the joined the conversation and was introduced to several people. One person said the sculpture was to be completed by noon. So I thought I would stick around for that last hour to watch Big Max be assembled. However, that hour presented challenges that would delay the completion till dinner time and then the next day.

While walking around, I met Ken Rollins of Rollins Fine Art, who brought Big Max here to South Straub Park and Leslie Curran, City Council Member. She owns Interior Motives, an art gallery that provides custom framing. We were all in shorts which is business casual in the hot weather in Florida!

We talked about the local art scene. Then I mentioned that there seemed to be a lack of advertisement for the installation. I had just heard about the install in the Patch newsletter that I subscribe to via email. I commented that if there had been a social media strategy in place, there may have been more people attending and "listening" online. That is, "following" the tweets and posts that were sent. I also added that several area social media influencers would enjoy broadcasting the message. Finally, a coordination with the local restaurants could have extended the reach and they could have provided an offer. Basically, all the business could have supported the install with their social media presences and mailing lists. Why? I added that this will drive business to them!

I went on to explain that the objective would have been to use social media to create the viral buzz. By creating a presence online using Twitter, facebook and social bookmarking tools, the message would beyond circulated via word of mouth at the water cooler and beyond! This approach is textbook and would increase awareness, more specifically, brand awareness and interest.

I said, unfortunately, people were hearing about the installation after the fact. If social media had been used, people would have been following the event before it happened and during the install. This could have been used to engage and energize the community. More importantly help people be a part of what the city was doing here.

This would create new visitors and business for the area when they came to see Big Max. Again, this would have increased the brand awareness through brand impressions. People would have been a part of this by engaging with the pics and messages on Twitter and Facebook in real time or when they read the message. Social media would have been the eyes and ears on the ground.

Actually, what I would recommend to any artist or business is to develop an integrated marketing strategy that utilized all marketing channels. This would include direct mail, mailing lists, online web presence, online and social media ads and the social media channels. Plus, you would need to measure this with analytical reporting tools.

I continued to photograph and tweet. This is how I met Scott Keeler, the St Petersburg Times staff photographer, Steve from St Petersburg TV and the support crew - Bryan, Matt, Mark and Ken. This felt like a family picnic with conversations covering the spectrum from politics to sports to local history and any other topic that was introduced. Scott was certainly entertaining. He was sharing Jim Morrison, Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel lore and their connection to St Petersburg. He was non-stop and I wish I had recorded some of his tales from old St Pete or "da burg."

Marc was the flatbed operator. He showed me the John Henry's new book and Big Max's page. Later, he gave us a bit of a jolt after the last beam was removed from the flatbed. The flatbed had been extended to accommodate the length of the beams. When he went to return the flatbed to its original length, the sound it made surprised us!

Later, I met Jeff Danner, another City Council member who came bringing more chairs.

As work was letting out, people were walking by and wondering what was happening here. People out or their walks were stopping to watch. People were coming up to John Henry and thanking him. He had cult status.

I have to admit, the most fun was sharing the story with others who walked up and asked, "What is it?" To see the expressions on people faced turn from curiosity to pride was a treat!

As dinnertime approached, John made the decision to bury the cables and paint Big Max the next day. I left and came home to check out the pictures I had taken. For the next couple days I would post pictures with messages that would tell more of Big Max's interesting story.

Big Max is expected to stay at South Straub Park for eighteen months. The city hopes this can be purchased and donated to St Petersburg. I have heard the cost of the sculpture is around $500,000.

My tweeting did not go unnoticed. I was mentioned in the Downtown St Petersburg article.

Please enjoy the "Live" tweets and their corresponding pictures that I tweeted and the photo essay.

Big Max installation sponsors

BIG MAX was part of a statewide exhibition John Henry did in 2008-9. There were seven museum exhibitions in seven Florida cities, with one monumental piece in each city. That is when I brought BIG MAX to Tampa. The exhibition was part of The Peninsula Project: Drawing in Space ~Ken Rollins.

Ken Rollins.

Ken Rollins, Rollins Fine Art, orchestrated getting Big Max to South Straub Park in St Petersburg, Florida.

Studio Crew

  • Matt Kimball, Carpentry, Construction
  • Bryan Rasmussen, Operations Manager, Fabricatorli>

John Henry Directing the crane operator.

Combined Online Views

2.2 Million for 2014 | 1.5 million for 2015

Business Branded Pages:
Facebook: Robert Neff    Google+ Fifth World Art