Cork artist creates new work in tribute to US civil rights campaigner

Cork artist Alex Pentek tells AISLING MEATH about his latest commission - designing a 16ft stainless steel flower outside an American school that pays tribute to a great anti-racism campaigner - all done by him remotely
Cork artist creates new work in tribute to US civil rights campaigner

Alex Pentek, and his allium-shaped piece Unity, which was recently installed in Washington in tribute to Charles H Houston.

THE internationally acclaimed Cork artist Alex Pentek, whose stunning work Kindred Spirits stands majestically in Bailic Park in Midleton, has once again created a wonder to behold.

His latest work, Unity, a 16ft stainless steel Allium flower, was recently installed outside the Charles H. Houston elementary school in Washington DC.

During lockdown, Alex, was awarded the commission following an open call for artists to design a permanent work to commemorate the legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the most influential lawyers and legal scholars of the 20th century.

He managed to squeeze the commission into his hectic schedule.

“Even though I would have physically enjoyed making this work, the fact is that I am also currently doing a Masters in Fine Art at the moment, and the pandemic also meant that I had to work remotely on this occasion,” he says.

“Watching it being installed in Washington from here in Cork was quite surreal.”

Working closely online with the fabrication team at Red Pepper Forge in Maryland, Alex oversaw the entire process as the team brought his design into existence.

He was across every step of the construction and when it was ready to be installed, he left nothing to chance.

Using architectural plans, he meticulously prepared the whole process, from loading and unloading the structure to the site, and making sure that all was in the correct position for laying the base.

“I took a lot of measurements,” said Alex. “ I measured the footpaths, the flowerbeds, and the distance from the school building down to the last millimetre to ensure the correct positioning.”

Working in tandem with an architect and engineer and their team, Alex had to take into account a plethora of factors, including windspeed, to ensure the safe installation of Unity.

“Working on pieces of a larger scale invariably means that I work with a team, even when I make the work myself,” he said

“I was lucky to have the fantastic Don Gregory from Cox, Graae +Spack Architects, along with Bill Yun, engineer, and a great team.

“I would have loved to have been there for the installation, but hopefully I will get over when an official launch goes ahead.”

Charles Hamilton Houston, the man who inspired ‘Unity, is often described as ‘The Man who killed Jim Crow’.

Marinated in ugly racism, ‘the Jim Crow laws’ referred to enforced racial segregation, which lasted from 1877 to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.

The name was derived from a minstrel routine named ‘Jump Jim Crow’, where white actors performed in Black face, and it became a horrible derogatory name for Black people.

‘Unity’ by Alex Pentek. Picture by Don Gregory . It was designed by the Cork artist (top right) and inspired by Charles Hamilton Houston (above right)
‘Unity’ by Alex Pentek. Picture by Don Gregory . It was designed by the Cork artist (top right) and inspired by Charles Hamilton Houston (above right)

These abhorrent laws forced the segregation of people in schools, on public transport, parks, restaurants and other public settings to perpetrate the inequality of the races.

In order to find the appropriate artistic expression to commemorate Houston’s life work, Alex researched his story and, as his research unfolded, so did his admiration for this man who had made such a contribution towards human rights.

Houston had served as First Lieutenant in the racially segregated U.S Army during World War I. His experiences there prompted his intention to study law.

“The hatred and scorn showered upon us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in dying for a world ruled by them,” said Houston.

“I made up my mind that if I got through this war, that I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not fight back.”

This was the statement by Houston which really moved Alex and drove his creative inspiration for Unity.

Houston returned to the US and entered Harvard Law school, where he became the first Black student to be elected to the editorial board of The Harvard Law Review.

Graduating with a Doctorate of Law in 1923, he worked tirelessly in the Supreme Court to fight Civil Rights cases against the Jim Crow Laws.

Houston came up with an ingenious legal statement which brought school segregation to an end, thus securing his place in legal history.

He argued that it was unconstitutional for the State to bar Black students, since there was no ‘separate but equal’ facility.

At that time, Southern States collectively spent less than half what was allotted for whites on education for Black students. Houston’s intention was to make it too expensive for facilities to remain separate -and it worked.

The Supreme Court ruled that Black students could be admitted to a white school, if there was only one school in the area.

In order to express this ‘Unity’ of the races, Alex used the language of flowers, ‘Floriography’ to design the work.

"I chose the Allium flower, which is the symbol for Unity and staying true to oneself,” explained Alex. “For the creation of the flower, I was also inspired by mathematics, in particular sacred geometry, which ascribes sacred meanings to particular shapes and geometric proportions.”

Each flower inside the shape is formed by interlocking petals in circles based on the form of the icosahedron, a 20 sided shape, all perfectly linking up together in a very visually satisfying sequence.

“Although there is no true perfection in nature, I renew my artistic license every year,” joked Alex.

Meanwhile, closer to home Alex, whose Kindred Spirits artwork in Midleton commemorates the 1847 donation by the Native American Choctaw People to Irish famine relief, is currently engaged in another totally different project.

Inspired by his passion for origami, he is making a collapsable pavilion for a creative collaboration with musician Larissa O’ Grady from Crash Ensemble, along with skateboarder/ composer Sam Perkin, and their six free performances will take place in Weaver’s Park, Dublin, on Sunday, September 26.

All details for times, etc, can be found on Twitter @events_DCC Dublin City council page.

This current project is called Discord. From ‘Unity’ to ‘Discord’, Alex’s creativity knows no boundaries.

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