Time was up. They’d had to compress a public art project that normally would take eight or nine months to build into a little over four months. Dozens of companies had to come together to ensure this would happen. To make matters even more intense, they were attempting this during the pandemic – a time of supply chain issues and unexpected delays due to workers testing positive for COVID-19.
The company’s board was due in for an early preview in March. But all the limestone hadn’t arrived so they couldn’t finish off the roots at the base of the sculpture.
To paraphrase the old saying, necessity is a mother. They hustled up some plants around the base of the missing limestone roots. The VIP event went off without a hitch; everyone was happy. A week later the plants were removed, the sculpture’s roots completed, the plants re-installed and the newly completed Rebirth of Technology sculpture by Ender Martos stood resplendent in front of the Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring.
Complete with LED lighting, the structure almost 25 feet tall, with different colored panels seems to breathe as it reflects the artist’s vision of the balance of technology, art and nature. It is public art, available for anyone to see and the largest enterprise Martos has ever undertaken.
But, of course, the real roots of this story go back much further.
Ender Martos grew up in Mérida, Venezuela, an area distinguished by its proximity to the Andes and a very diverse population thanks in large part to all the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Arabs, Americans, Asian and yes Germans who moved to the country following World War II.
His parents, he says, came from the lower classes but were able to work their way up through education. Both became lawyers. His mother also has a degree in education.
Surrounded by two older and one younger brothers, Martos was looking for something to distinguish himself – it wasn’t sports – and picked up a crayon around age 5 and began drawing the nearby mountains. “I found out I had an ability they didn’t have.” This was something he was pretty good at and something he continued doing through school although he never was enrolled in formal art classes.
In middle school and high school he had classes in technical drawing, drawing blue prints. “The technical drawing was my obsession. It was a little different, of course. Super straight lines and everything needed to be impeccable, clean. So I fell in love with that.
“If you were my friend at the moment, I would do your homework for free – that’s how much I liked it. And if you’re not, I would charge you for it. At the moment my leaning was more toward architecture.”
He enrolled in architectural school at the prestigious Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida. "I was learning all these skills to be able to make buildings, but I realized I wanted to do something to make people feel. So from that point I dropped out and decided to come to the U.S.
“My dad wasn’t happy. So my dad stopped talking to me for a while for at least six months.”
The United States wasn’t completely foreign to Martos. Both his parents had hosted exchange students from Minneapolis, Minnesota and the University of Texas. “So we had a close relationship with American culture. I had already been here a couple of times. There was something about the American culture that was super appealing to me. I grew up very differently than most of my friends. I was listening to American music and I got into skateboarding. I was always fascinated about movies. My vision was to come here for an education that was a little more updated with computers."
ULA was a good school, he said, but classes kept being disrupted by protests. What this meant, he said, was that often the usual four year college experience took six years to get through because the university would periodically shut down.
He decided his future lay in the United States and in 1998 at age 21 he moved to Houston where he spent the summer working in construction at an AC company climbing into attics in homes throughout Houston. “I was welcomed by the beautiful summer heat. It was the hardest job I ever had. I remember asking myself ‘What am I doing here?’” he says now laughing. “I had in mind that good times would comes and I just have to be persistent.”
He took a break to figure out what to do next. “I even stopped skateboarding.” He made a trip to Austin. “I visited Austin and heard really great things about the university. I just fell in love with the Austin vibe. I need to move to Austin.” But he couldn’t make the move right away.
The next seven months were spent trying to save some money. He headed back to Venezuela for his student visa. He started ESL classes to improve his writing in the language. Next up in 2002: Austin Community College where he took some drawing classes to create a portfolio to apply to UT. In 2005 he transferred to UT and graduated in spring of 2008. As it turned out, all that technical drawing he’d done came in handy, giving him, “the tools to think in space, in three dimensional work.”
He begins with patterns on paper. At UT he says he took any class he could. “For me this was great. OK I’m going to take photography, ceramics, painting to get an idea. I was leaning more towards sculpture.”
He had an epiphany about the lines he'd been drawing on paper. “I wanted to rip them off from the paper and put them in a 3D environment.”
He was very ambitious with his first effort in this regard. It employed filament and was about six feet by six feet by six feet and came complete with a little engine that kept everything moving, he said. “I really loved that piece. But at the moment as a student I didn’t realize that the piece was too big and I didn’t have a place to put it. What do I do with it?”
It stayed with one friend after another who had larger spaces. The last place was at a friend’s business which unfortunately went bankrupt. “They came to his office and took everything and then the piece was gone away. I wonder where it is.”
What he knew from this effort was that he wanted to include vibrant colors in his artwork.
After graduating, he was supported in part by his now ex-wife, in addition to selling merchandise in Venezuela and working as a salesman for T-Mobile for five years. His off work time was spent making artwork, painting with acrylic paints. His first sale came in 2011 as part of a group show. But he kept returning to his idea of using monofilament in his art and began experimenting with combining it with different materials. He came up with a series he named Estructura y Desafio (Structure and Challenge). “I wanted to start small and learn how to control it.” He didn’t sell anything then but got some local media attention.
In 2014 he entered his guerilla artist phase. “I decided to take some art from the walls and put it on the street.” Without getting permission, he and a couple friends went to the Lamar Beach Metro Park at Lady Bird Lake in the middle of the day on a Sunday where they laid a geometric pattern of colored filaments over a steel pedestrian bridge. Amazingly, he didn’t get in trouble and it stayed up for two months before someone took it down.
“It was risky. I was nervous, but the need, the urge to do it was bigger than anything,” he said.
“I wanted to make people to feel something. You only get these type of people that come to your studio, but you don’t get the bigger crowd. Public art is important because of that. You don’t have to go to a museum to appreciate art.”
He started participating in various group shows with his paintings. He traveled back to Houston to see exhibitions. He drew geometric forms.
By 2015 he was back indoors with his first solo show in Austin entitled Luz y Movimiento (Light and Movement). One of the ten pieces of art sold during the show, the other nine later. At that point, he quit his day job. “I decided to go all the way into the arts.”
Still making periodic trips back to Houston, Martos went to other galleries and exhibitions here and through a friend and fellow artist Patrick Fagerberg met Trish Matute who along with Harwood Taylor and Brian E. Freeze founded ELLIO Fine Art gallery.
It was Matute who approached Martos about the HPE public art job, encouraging him to submit plans but telling him it would be a long process. As it turned out – after a multitude of interviews – the concept they liked the best of his was the least developed one, that of a tree.
“They were looking to make this piece become the next cultural touch point,” Martos said. They gave the applying artists some of the core values – among them inclusion. He thought his tree idea worked because “Trees are interconnected underground. It used to be thought that they were fighting for survival, but they actually don’t. They actually help each other through their interconnections underground.”
Matute said she thought of Martos because of his experiences and what he has to say as an immigrant. “He has an appreciation for those who came before. But what he’s creating is fresh and his own and new.”
HPE picked the concept they liked the best from Martos’ pitches, but they probably never imagined how it would turn out, Matute said. Martos wanted materials (limestone) that reflected the state. Also he focused on the rebirth of technology which he called “more humanlike.”
In his first presentation Martos talked about his experience as an immigrant. For the fourth presentation he was advised he would be meeting with Antonio Neri the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and to tell his immigration story in a shorter version because Neri is a very busy man. Martos was told the CEO was an immigrant as well, with an Italian father who grew up in Argentina. As Martos learned later, Neri used to teach art classes. As it turned out, Neri gave Martos his alloted 15 minutes and 50 minutes more, Martos said.
According to Martos, the only thing Neri wanted changed when he saw the more developed plans pertained to size. “No, no, no, no. That needs to be bigger. That needs to be doubled sized,” Martos said the CEO said. So the piece that Martos had designed to be 12 feet tall so as not to interfere with the building’s signage, more than doubled in size.
Martos said in the past he had always worked with a small group of assistants and had most of the control over the piece.” For this piece the immensity of it and the magnitude of the piece required many more people.”
Enter Joe Meppelink from Houston-based MetaLab. “We work for the artist. We do what is called design optimization which is basically all the architectural and engineering drawings. And then all the project management to see it through. We’re kind of the left brain in the equation.”
MetaLab started out as a basic architecture firm formed in 2007 but the great recession in 2009, which all but eliminated architecture projects and made them rethink their options. Even when they first started the company they’d been interested in helping artists do large scale work, Meppelink said. So they course-corrected to do just that, he said.
“We basically set out to leverage our architectural skill set, our ability to do 3D models and also work with the really vast array of manufacturers and fabricators in Houston to execute all the work. Over the past 15 years they exported those talents and now have 20-25 public arts projects in almost as many states around the country, he said.
Asked about the fast pace, Meppelink diplomatically calls it “just an aggressive schedule. We were keeping pace with the building project, to get the sculpture in place parallel to the building. We do this kind of work all the time so we just worked faster.
“Between the illnesses and the very long lead times on certain materials it was very challenging to get it done in that short a time.”
Prices changed along the way, Martos said, thanks to inflation and delays.
Despite all this, Meppelink said they didn’t have to change any of their materials or alter the artist’s concept in any way. “It’s really a pretty uncompromised realization of the artist’s vision.” And it opened, on time in spring 2022.
“We worked very, very closely with the artist.” In fact, he said he and Martos became friends united, in part, by their joint love of climbing.
More and more, corporations are signing on for public art displays outside their offices, Meppelink said.
“Across the board people love creativity and beauty and a sense of place and art does that in a way that few other things can do. Increasingly private developers and corporations are recognizing this and even when not mandated to do so, they spend the money on public art to enhance their facilities. Over the last 15 years we’ve really watched it grow and pick up momentum. Public art is almost like a given in a large scale development now.”
“There’s really clear economic data on public art that it has a massive return on investment for the cities and communities in which it sits,” Meppelink said. And it provides jobs for any number of people and businesses.
For the HPE project, a stone fabricator milled all the stone from quarry blocks into the shape of the trunk. There were two steel fabricators – one printing the polyhedron and the other creating the nucleus and the spokes, Meppelink said.
“The lead time was tremendous for it. We were waiting, waiting and waiting for it to show up because it was holding up other fabrication.” The LED lights came from China by the way of a Canadian company.
"The limestone — there’s not much of a stone industry in Houston as you can imagine — so our stone fabricator is in Buda which is just south of Austin. So the stone came from Austin. The metal came from a company called Laser Masters, that’s here in Houston.
The nucleus came from Wisconsin. Meppelink describes the core as being like a salad bowl but much bigger. The LED lights came from China and the glls from Canada.
“The stone was right down to the wire, too,” Mepplelink said. “The quarry was delayed. Trucking from the quarry to the stone to the fabricator was delayed and the fabricator had a COVID outbreak. We had to have it done. The trunk is made of 10 pieces of stone which each weigh 2,500 pounds. Those had to be set down around this pentagon column made of steel that’s behind the stone. Then we put this 2 foot diameter on top. So the stone had to come first in the sequence.” The limestone routes came in a second shipment.
Martos clearly counts himself as a proud Texan and said it was important to him to convey a sense of place with the sculpture.
“It was something bursting out of Texan soil and giving birth to this sphere that resembles what they are trying to do with the world. You see this organic portion of it and then you have this very futuristic looking sphere.”
"It was very important to me to make the best out of it [this piece] because it was going to be public. You can walk by, You can drive. There are people running around there sometimes. When we were working on it, people were stopping, taking pictures. That made me happy."