A Sculptor Who Helped Us Find Community Among Strangers

The artist George Rhoads passed away in early July this year. His kinetic sculptures, featuring rolling balls moving around complicated tracks, became a mainstay of transit hubs, science centers, and children’s hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s. When I came across his obituary in the New York Times, I finally put a name to the sculptures I had seen across many spaces I’d been in during my life, and reflected on what his sculptures really do.

In New York City, where I live, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is home to Rhoads’s “42nd Street Ballroom.”The 1983 sculpture, an eight-by-eight-foot cube, ushered in an era of much larger works in Rhoads’s career.

The Bus Terminal is a notoriously inhospitable space to occupy. Harsh overhead fluorescent lights cast a slimy blue-white energy throughout the building. Buses seemingly never run on time, leaving crowds of frustrated people in a transit purgatory. As I walk through the building, I hear piped-in classical music, played with the intention of discouraging homeless people from congregating inside. But if you enter at 42nd Street and Eigth Avenue, you are greeted by another sound: the whizzing of balls along “42nd Street Ballroom’s” four tracks, banging out percussive sounds on xylophones and gong-like shapes along the way.

Pre-pandemic, it was not unusual to see a small quorum of people gathered around the cube, pointing at various sound-making devices, guessing what path each ball might take, and collectively celebrating when one travelled down an infrequently traversed path. Every time I’m in the neighborhood and have 10 minutes to spare, I visit this sculpture. It’s not unusual to find myself in conversation with a tourist or a local worker, trying to puzzle through the sculpture’s logic and engineering. George Rhoads’s sculpture manages to create a small community in a space designed to be outright hostile.

Rhoads’s work is frequently seen in transit spaces. Rhoads’s “Exercise in Fugality” (1985) is located within the Boston Logan Airport. A small Rhoads sculpture, featuring marble-sized balls, can be found in the Cleveland Hopkins airport. In these settings, Rhoads sculptures echo the bustling atmosphere of travelers moving across airline concourses and bus gates, contributing little xylophone dings and percussive rattles to the echoing hallways. But Rhoads’s work also encourages us to stop and look, and to find a small community of strangers as we do this looking.

Building these small communities was central to Rhoads’s work. In an interview for a 1989 documentary about his practice, Rhoads remarked that “I spend more than half my time watching the people are doing …. I watch the people reacting, which is as much of a show as what’s going on inside …. Some of them are amused, some bemused, and some are actually startled.” Rhoads’s sculptures are, in some ways, activated by the public’s collective experience.

Aside from airports and bus stations, Rhoads’s work is found in shopping malls (“Gizmo” (1986) at Champlain Centre Mall in Plattsburgh, New York) and science centers (Boston’s Museum of Science). The Rhoads sculpture at Boston’s Museum of Science, “Archimedian Excogitation,” (1987) towers over visitors inside a large hall near the museum’s cafeteria. A small crowd of parents and children gather around the piece, which is amongst Rhoads’s more complicated works. On the piece’s upper levels, large balls take a serpentine path enabled by motorized lifts. More at eye level, pool balls roll through whirligigs and across xylophone bars, and crash onto cymbals. As with most Rhoads pieces, “Archimedian Excogitation”has the capacity to cause unexpected delights. On a recent visit, after a group of balls tipped onto a large metal disc I overheard a child remark: “I was so surprised when they did that.”

George Rhoads, “Archimedean Excogitation,” (1987) Museum of Science, Boston Massachusetts

Rhoads’s work is also prevalent in healthcare settings, especially children’s hospitals. Personally, the first George Rhoads sculpture I ever encountered was likely at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, where I had a foot surgery when I was in the fourth grade. The day after the surgery, hospital staff wheeled me through the hallways to a pediatric physical therapist, but on the way, we stopped in front of “The Circus of the Spheres,” (1992) a Rhoads sculpture with a triangular base and large chimes activated by red golf-ball-like mallets. The staff member, my mom, and I spent time watching the balls move around and make sounds. This sculpture is what I remember the most from that time in the hospital, especially the way that it brought levity and joy to a place that otherwise felt sterile and frightening to me then.

George Rhoads’s body of work is an exciting collection of public art, which truly takes the “public” to heart. Through encouraging a small crowd to gather together, the sculptures encourage the formation of a small, temporary community. As funding organizations prioritize participatory public art processes and creative engagement, we might look George Rhoads’s corpus as an instigator of engagement. While Rhoads’s sculptures only occasionally invite direct intervention and interaction on the part of the audience, their complexly engineered systems encourage interaction between strangers in public space.

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