Flight 5191 Memorial: The story behind a sculpture of remembrance

in weeks leading up to unveiling, art yields to engineering

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2011 

  • A behind-the-scenes look at the making and installation of the Flight 5191 memorial sculpture. Video by chief photographer Charles Bertram.
  • Unfinished Journeys: Flight 5191 Remembered
    A multimedia review of the Herald-Leader's coverage of the crash of Comair Flight 5191. Originally published a week after the August 27, 2006 crash. Produced by David Stephenson. Victims' photos start at 3:06.

DEMOSSVILLE, Aug. 12, 2011 — Outside of Douwe Blumberg's studio, a bluebird flits over blossoms of Queen Anne's lace while a turkey vulture rides a thermal in the clear sky high above.

Inside, more birds rest in a far less sylvan scene. Heavy equipment litters the floor as welders scream amid the acrid scent of burning metal. These birds have big, bold, shiny curves, heavy with metal and the symbolism they carry.

There are forty-nine birds, one for each of the people who died when Flight 5191 crashed at Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27, 2006.

Birds fill Blumberg's head, the ones that inspire him at his rural Pendleton County home, and now the ones that populate one of the most important pieces he's ever sculpted. Blumberg has worked on memorials before, but never something as raw and close as this, a piece that marks the different lives and tragic death of 49 people killed that morning.

It's just two weeks before the work will be unveiled in Lexington. Blumberg looks tired and more than a little haggard. These final stages of the sculpture have turned from art into an engineering project. Blumberg now has to make sure the birds will flow upwards in a delicate arc that is still strong enough to stand alone as a piece of public art.

"This is completely different from anything I've ever done," he says, as he dons a coverall in preparation for welding. "To have family members involved in the process has been very emotional. We're hoping this piece brings some closure. It's been five years and we're hoping it will be a place you come to grieve and have great memories, too."

Horseman to sculptor

Blumberg, 46, started his professional life as a horseman, a saddlebred trainer in Southern California who had studied art in college but never practiced. He started making jewelry in his spare time, then sculpting horse heads. Blumberg showed some of the heads to people at a horse show, and ended up selling them all.

He became a full-time sculptor and moved to Louisville, where he knew horse people and could more easily move around the country. Blumberg sculpted more horses, then larger pieces of public art. As his work grew bigger in scale, it required more travel to make pitches, find different foundries and install at different sites.

During this time, he met his wife Marci and moved to Pendleton County, less than an hour from the Northern Kentucky airport.

According to Blumberg, his wife is a genius at finding "calls for artists," the official advertisements for artists to compete for jobs. She saw the ad from the 5191 Memorial Commission and he applied. They chose him as one of three finalists out of 49 applicants.

Blumberg showed the group his mock-up idea, based on a sculpture he'd done for a California company that was built over a lake. For this commission, he created a flock of 49 birds as they rise from the ground, some high in the air, some near the ground, some nearly horizontal as they move together.

"I love the shape of gulls' wings but I wanted a more stylized shape that has the feel of a person with their arms outstretched to the sky," he said recently.

The concept of individuals grouped together yet all reaching for the sky earned the immediate approval of family members.

"It was an easy decision at that point," said Marion Queen, whose father and stepmother, Leslie and Kaye Morris, were on the flight. "I think we all wanted it to be happy and uplifting, not something somber that you would think of as a 'memorial.' When we saw the birds, we thought of them as spirits going up to heaven."

Blumberg had another proposal that appealed to everyone. Each bird's wingspan was roughly four feet wide; inside its smooth cylindrical body, he would place a canister into which each family could place mementos of their loved one. No one would know which canister would go in which bird, but they'd know the canisters were somewhere in the sculpture.

"The piece is there to bring together the community," said Matthew Snoddy, whose father, Tim Snoddy, was killed that day. He declined to say what he put in his father's canister. "Not knowing whose bird is whose is a much more effective way of doing that."

The Flight 5191 Memorial Commission raised $250,000 for the sculpture; a maintenance fund of $100,000 is still being raised.

Engineering project

More than a year ago, Blumberg and his main assistant, brother-in-law Craig Mallot, started sculpting the birds out of hard foam — first wings, then the bodies. The foundry in Cincinnati (which Blumberg will not name) then cast each wing separately, along with each bullet-shaped, hollowed body with two openings for the wings.

The pieces were then cast in magnesium aluminum alloy, which is both strong, light and corrosion resistant. It also polishes to a high, light sheen that glints beautifully in the sun.

"It's smooth and pretty but it has many planes," Blumberg said.

Those pieces were welded together to form the 49 separate birds.

Then the engineering project began. That's when Blumberg planned out exactly how each bird could be placed in an ascending flock that curved around a circular base as it rose into the air. Six sets of two birds were welded more closely together to represent the six couples who were traveling together.

Then the sculpture had to be bolted together to stand, in the end, at a height of nearly 17 feet. But before that could happen, it somehow had to be transported to Lexington for final assembly at the Arboretum.

Blumberg created three separate pieces, parts of which were attached to flattened metal that would form the bottom. Between them, the three pieces were made of 33 birds; the remaining 16 would be added at the site to create the exact impression Blumberg wanted.

"When you place a sculpture in a large open space, how do you create something that's not bulky, but isn't overwhelmed by the space?" he asked. "This is light and airy but it takes up a lot of space and it leaves me the freedom to create on the site.

"In the end, it will be very organic," he said. "It's a puzzle that has to be carefully planned out, and yet it can still take a slightly different shape from the one that's planned."

'It's like a puzzle'

Aug. 15, 2011 — On an unseasonably cool evening, the Arboretum is filled with joggers and walkers even as late as 8:30. Blumberg and his crew have pulled in with three trucks and flatbed trailers, each of the three pieces of the sculpture exposed, soon to be quickly covered with tarps.

By nine, when the sun is going down, Blumberg is ready to move the sculpture pieces, a big generator, a welding machine and lights onto the site at the center of the Arboretum's rose garden. It has been adopted by Hospice of the Bluegrass, which called it the Garden of Remembrance.

It took a while to find an appropriate site for the memorial, recalls Marion Queen.

"We went everywhere — downtown, the Legacy Trail, Triangle Park — and nothing was quite right," she says, either too secluded or too public.

Blumberg has brought an army of helpers, mostly recruited from his church, Grace Fellowship in Florence. Doug Gautraud, an architecture student at the University of Cincinnati, has worked on the piece all summer with Ben Sandfoss, another student. Mark Weigel, a general contractor, has brought his Bobcat to the site.

The church is attended by many Comair employees; it's also where Blumberg sat when he heard about the crash five years ago.

After setting up the large generator that will power the welding and polishing equipment, the men wrestle the three pieces off the trucks and onto the dark granite base, amid the scent of the roses and the generator's diesel fuel.

"Okay boys, don't step on any of the flowers," Weigel says.

Blumberg must position the pieces exactly, so they can later be bolted to the granite. But first, the three chunks must be welded into one large piece.

"It's like a puzzle, and now we have to put it together," he says.

As bats swooped down from overhead, the piece started to approximate its final shape. At night, with the birds shining under lamps, the sculpture looks like nothing found in nature, yet completely natural. The birds glide up and sideways in their flock, metallic bellies exposed to the light.

Weigel isn't an art expert, but he became a big admirer of Blumberg's art after he saw the large metal cross that Blumberg installed at Grace Fellowship.

"This is the first time I've done a sculpture," Weigel says, as he balanced the largest of the three pieces while Blumberg welded, shooting sparks out into the dark. "I'm just glad to be a part of it."

Keeping it under wraps

Everyone wants an unveiling to be just that, a surprise. But it's also hard to erect a complicated piece of art in secret in a place that hundreds of people walk through every day.

Blumberg's team has put up a swathe of black plastic around the granite, but by mid-week, he has attached enough birds that they appear above the plastic.

Two days before the unveiling, Blumberg is pleased with the sculpture's construction. He has attached each of the remaining 16 birds and the end result looks a lot like his original plans.

For now, every hour is full of welding and grinding, welding and grinding. The welding leaves black streaks that have to be ground away. It's gritty, hot, noisy work, especially in contrast to the ethereal nature of the sculpture.

Sometimes Blumberg and Mallot climb on the birds themselves; sometimes they use the scaffolding they've put up to reach the highest points.

Earlier in the week, on Monday, Andy Guzman of Stones and Granite of Lexington arrives to bolt the sculpture to the granite and attach the granite squares with the victims' names to the base. There are 18 bolts that go through the granite to the concrete below.

The granite is called Black Spice and it's imported from Brazil, Guzman says.

"A hurricane couldn't knock it over," Guzman says.

(Blumberg and everyone else involved hope very much that people won't climb on the sculpture as it is a highly emotional memorial to many people. But it is public art, Blumberg says, and the artist must build it to withstand undesired climbing.)

By Thursday, Blumberg and Mallot are planning all-nighters to finish all the tiny details: mulching around the base, painting the pergola at one end of the rose garden, polishing the stone and the birds.

"We knew it would be like this, but we didn't want to be here too long so more and more people would see the piece," Blumberg said.

As for Saturday's unveiling, Blumberg isn't too worried. He thinks the sculpture looks as it should and reflects what he'd hoped it would: acknowledgement of terrible loss, and a larger reflection of hope and healing.

Other people's feelings about it, he says, "I tend to leave that up to God. I've done the best I can."

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