Swirling guardrails accent Altoona’s new 1st Avenue roundabout as a four-year public art project wraps up

“Woven Lines” sculpture in progress at the 1st Avenue roundabout in Altoona. Installation of the piece required precise measurements and equipment, and took 10 days. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Much like Charles Bradley and Ozzy Osbourne, Altoona is going through changes. This year, the city released an amendment to their 2014 Comprehensive Plan that would put in infrastructure to “recognize the potential growth of the community and propose key concepts to be followed as community growth and change occur.”

Among many other measures, the plan includes adding a roundabout at the intersection of 1st Avenue and 9th Street. The roundabout itself is close to being completed, but the city aims to make it more appealing than your average roundabout. So Altoona teamed up with Group Creative Services, an organization that specializes in bringing public art to cities, to hire Aaron T Stephan of Portland, Maine to build a sculpture in the middle of it.

Guardrail pieces for “Woven Lines” by Aaron T Stephan. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Stephan’s artwork has been installed in cities across the country. He works across platforms, but has spent the last four years planning, constructing, transporting and now installing a 12-foot high sculpture in the middle of the 1st Avenue roundabout.

Design planning began in 2018, construction in early 2020 — until the pandemic began, slowing the whole process.

“It went into storage last summer and was just kind of sitting there since. So construction has kinda been going on for like two, three years.”

At first glance, the sculpture, titled “Woven Lines,” may just seem like a big metal knot. The piece is made out of guard rails, twisted into each other to represent Altoona’s strong sense of community.

Artist Aaron T Stephan stands by his in-progress sculpture “Woven Lines.” The piece clocked in at over 20,000 pounds and 1,500 feet of guardrail.– Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

“As an artist, I don’t want to create something beautiful, I want to find something beautiful. And like, try to pull things out of their own environment,” Stephan explained. “So for me, that’s where the guardrail comes from. I think there’s a lot of connections between the idea of Iowa being this crossroads, and I think everybody who talked about Altoona, we talked about connection and being tied together, being a really strong community.”

The process to build the sculpture was far from straightforward. Working with guardrail was a new challenge for Stephan, and one that proved to take a lot of patience as he learned to work with the material’s natural rigidity.

“It’s galvanized; if you heat it up, it’ll evaporate and kill you. And so you can’t heat it up to bend it,” he said. “So you can take the entire piece of guardrail and bend it, but then it bounces back. I made this entire piece and then I just took it apart and it just bounced back to what it was when I got it, you know? And so it became almost like this performance. I actually installed it twice just to make sure I could do it.”

Stephan ended up numbering each piece, creating an intricate plan outlining the exact position each guardrail should be in when installed on site. And the innovation doesn’t stop there. Stephan not only made the sculpture itself, but also had to tweak his own equipment in order to make the construction possible.

Mock-up of completed sculpture “Woven Lines,” lit up at night. — courtesy of Ryan Hanser

“I’ve done a bunch of pieces of wood like curved light poles. So I have a machine I’ve used to do that. It’s a hydraulic pipe bender,” Stephan explained. “And so I took that and made almost like dies to fit the silhouette of the guardrail. I use that to put little bends into the guardrail. And that was basically just for these minute adjustments because I couldn’t bend it too far because it’s galvanized.”

Installation of the massive sculpture represents a milestone for the growing community.

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“For Altoona, I think this is their first really large, substantial piece of public artwork, so that’s to be congratulated,” said Teva Dawson, owner of Group Creative Services.

Group drew up a public art master plan for Altoona upon finding out that the city would be implementing new infrastructure. They helped oversee the installation of “Woven Lines,” a roughly $217,000 project funded by grants and the city.

“Suburbs are getting more and more into doing public art, so this is a great first piece,” she said.

“I think that’s what’s exciting: [Altoona is] getting into that bigger sphere of creating distinction. All the suburbs want to feel like they have unique places to live.”

Construction on “Woven Lines” is now complete and open for viewing by the public. First Avenue is expected to reopen soon.