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A Sculptor Builds a Goldfinch to Soar at the D.M. Airport

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Examples of public art are appearing across Iowa in parks, on street corners, and in the lobbies of office buildings. Sculptor Bounnak Thammavong has been commissioned to create a piece that will be seen by thousands of travelers passing through the Des Moines International Airport.

On a late spring afternoon, Thammavong melts aluminum using a welding torch in his garage-turned-studio behind his house in Swisher.

He shapes the resulting pools of metal into the beak and head of a goldfinch. It's the first stage of a huge sculpture that will hang from the ceiling in the baggage-claim area of the Des Moines International Airport.

“When it’s finished, it will be a bird with its wings spread open flying across the sky with a smoke trail behind it," Thammavong says. "The smoke trail will be of a couple of different colors toward the pastel, primary color end, and the bird itself, of course, will be kind of golden colored.”

The soaring bird will be 18-feet long with a 12-foot wing span. The vapor trail behind it will add another 20 feet.

Thammavong’s design won the commission for this piece of public art awarded by Metro Arts Alliance of Des Moines.

The group was looking for something with an aviation theme. But it also wanted a sculpture the public could help create. So Thammavong is bringing the goldfinch to the Des Moines Art Festival later this month.

“What I will do is allow them to do a kind of Jackson Pollack style painting all over it, drip paint and build up a texture," he says. "I’ll take that back to my studio and I’ll do an overcoat of yellow, so the head will be kind of blackish and the overcoat will cover all of the textures that come through from the participants.”

Thammavong was three years old when his family escaped Communist-controlled Laos in 1983. They crossed the Mekong River into Thailand and sat in a refugee camp for about six months. The Presbyterian Church helped bring them to the U.S., first placing them in Wichita. But Thammavong’s father wanted to live somewhere that reminded him more of home.

“They farmed a lot of rice., so he knew about rice paddies and farm culture," Thammavong says. "In Iowa, the first thing he saw was field after field of corn and he figured it’s not rice, but it will do.”

They settled in Cedar Falls when Thammavong was in third grade. From an early age he displayed a talent for art.

“Since I could hold a pencil in my hand," he says. "I was always painting or something. I was kind of a child prodigy. I was doing portraits and stuff when I was 10, and they were pretty realistic. I had neighbors requesting portraits from me.”

He studied at UNI, which is where he met his wife, who is also an artist, and where he grew interested in sculpting. He went on to graduate school hoping to one day make a full-time career out of his creative work. But the ups-and-downs of seeking art projects that pay is a tough business.

“They give a request for qualifications, show you a budget, give the basic theme, let you know what the site looks like, and you come up with the concept, go pitch it, cross your fingers, hope they love you, and even if they do, they may not pick you," he says with a laugh.

So for now, he holds down a day job, assembles his sculptures at night and sleeps very little. This exhausting life style has not dimmed his ultimate dream.

“What I want to make sure is my artwork is available for everybody," Thammavong says. "That it gets put in places that are not just the high-end, high-rise condos, but places like Green Square Park in Cedar Rapids or the Ped Mall in Iowa City, where it can be experienced by as many people as possible.”

Travelers through the Des Moines International Airport will be able to experience his work beginning in October.