The manhole covers returning to Nicollet Mall in August 2017 were created by artist Kate Burke before personal computers, digital cameras and ink jet printers. In order to share her original sketches, memories, and relevant material about the project, Burke searched her studio for the twenty-five-year-old design materials and photographed the plans and drawings, and digitized old photographs. We are fortunate to have this archival document of the 1992 project assembled in 2016 by the artist.
Winning the Competition
Burke recalls that seven locations were targeted for artwork in the late 1980s by BRW Inc., an architecture and engineering firm working with the Nicollet Mall Implementation Board. Craig Amundsen of BRW Inc. led the public art process. They knew the basic format of what art they wanted: a water fountain, street furniture, bus shelters and pavement embedments.
Eight-hundred artists, including Burke, gathered from a national pool, were invited to submit examples of past work. She was among a handful chosen to propose designs for each location; about five artists competed for each spot as Burke recalls. She was placed under a design contract and paid for her proposal. The final selection of artists was made from their design proposals.
Burke’s experience included paving inserts and casting in metals, so she assumed that she would be competing to design pavement embedments. After the interview, she was surprised to be asked to design manhole covers; they were not one of the originally proposed art projects. “An important lesson in working in public art is that you are always doing the unexpected. A project rarely comes along the same way twice, so you are required to figure out how to get things done, which is my specialty,” says Burke.
She enjoys working with natural themes and created a design with a walleye that both she and Craig Amundsen liked. The walleye is the state fish and Burke was inspired to continue with this idea, using the state bird (the loon), the state flower (the lady slipper), and she even titled the project with the state motto – “Hail Minnesota.”
Over 140 copies of the proposal were distributed to seven community groups and the city council who weighed in on the competing designs. Burke recalls that her proposal distinguished itself from the others because it was the only one that had no objections raised, either for the concept, or the designs.
It took over one year for Burke to receive the final approval to proceed, which cut into the execution time for the artwork. She had only one year to hand-carve eleven “patterns”; find a foundry that would work with her; and learn the litigation and engineering requirements that the manhole covers had to address. Burke says, “for instance, a manhole cover is required to not trip a lady wearing stiletto shoes and it has to hold the weight of a fire truck. The detail could be no more than one-half-inch deep.”
Seventy-seven manhole covers located on the sidewalks of Nicollet Mall were needed. BRW Inc. and the Nicollet Mall Implementation Board chose 11 designs and she cast each seven times for a total of 77 covers. Burke also cast an additional 30 covers for Northern States Power Company (NSP), using the same designs. They are easily identifiable because they have a larger rim.
Burke began carving dense chip board by-hand to create the patterns. To render the intricate details, she carved chip board three- to five-layers deep. The highly absorbent material enabled strong glues and foundry varnishes to sink in and harden. It was a unique solution and many seasoned pattern makers have told Burke they have never seen anything like it. She says, “this process has worked so well, that I have cast from each pattern 10 to 20 times. Even now, the patterns are in great condition and are very beautiful.”
Next the patterns were sand-cast in metal. There are several processes for casting, and sand-casting is the most basic. Using the pattern, an impression is made in sand and then the cavity is filled with molten metal. Everything is a shifting of positive and negative images. The original carving is a positive; in the sand it becomes a cavity or the “negative.” When the molten metal is poured into the cavity, it hardens and comes out positive.
At the time, Burke was living in Massachusetts and was fortunate to find a foundry nearby in Brockton MA – Le Baron Foundry – a small iron works that specialized in cast iron manhole covers. She notes that, “my experience with foundries has been very rewarding. The men are very skilled, very helpful, and delighted to have something out of the ordinary to work on.” Unfortunately the foundry was too small to avoid being bought up at the turn of the 20th century along with dozens of other iron works. They were all consolidated into one or two large foundry works in the United States. Burke states that, “with few independent foundries currently in business, the project would be more complicated and costly to get the castings done today.”
Manhole covers with unique imagery appear in cities around the world and avid fans visit them and collect images. Burke’s manhole covers have been featured in the following blogs:
Michelle Ward’s Blog
Will Crain-photos and Michelle Ward-graphics.