Made On Earth — Earth, Wind, Inspire

Craft & Design Energy & Sustainability Science


Gary Bates grew up plowing the fields of his grand-father’s farm in tiny Manhattan, Mont., where he now lives. Making passes on the tractor each day bored the young Bates, but he did enjoy lying on the grass and watching the windmills. And it was there that he found the inspiration for his kinetic sculptures.

In his early 20s, Bates began building large, wind-powered structures from recycled farm machinery. He placed these sculptures on the edge of the field so he could watch them while he drove the tractor, sometimes looking at them from a mile away.

Today, a telescope points from Bates’ living room to his 1986 sculpture Lunar Ketcherschmitt, a 14-foot-high piece marking the edge of his property. Ketcherschmitt is made of an old steel boiler cut in two, with one 2,300-pound half spinning atop the other. Engineers from Stanford University have visited to study how the wind can start the heavy top half spinning, but they remain baffled. Bates doesn’t necessarily understand it either. “I don’t know why it works,” he admits, “but I’m happy that it works.”

Like many of Bates’ sculptures, Ketcherschmitt makes visible the pulse of the environment. Each one reacts to some natural force — in this case, wind — and transmits the information in a visual way. Bates peers through the lens to Ketcherschmitt each morning to see what the weather might be like. Similarly, an engineering professor at Montana State University watches the spin of Bates’ Wind Arc from his office window to determine whether it’s too blustery to ride his bike home.

Bates’ next public work, Rain Scale, will be installed this year at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash. Bates will perch an 18-foot-wide horizontal ring of stainless steel atop a 25-foot-high arch. Three-eighths of an inch of rain, or 29 pounds of water, will set the 2,000-pound ring into see-sawing motion for almost an hour, depositing water into the pond below. It’s sure to be a glorious sight — just remember to bring your umbrella.

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