Sculptor Michael Enn Sirvet sits back in his studio office in industrial Beltsville, Maryland, taking a rare break. Within view of his metal-cutting and sanding equipment, draped for protection against flying dust, Sirvet lets fly a wistful thought: He would have liked a little more time with the dining table he created for the apartment of a sports legend.
Sirvet reminisces about this first major commission. The polished aluminum table featured a lacy pattern of holes—one for each point scored during the player’s legendary career. That involved placing 32,292 holes, captured like balls in a nine-by-four-foot rectangular surface. Adding to the complexity, the scattered holes only overlap at the table’s corners, where its top folds down over perfectly aligned, pierced legs.
Though the design appears effortless, Sirvet actually spent several months working out its intricate pattern. It took three weeks for a skilled machine shop in nearby Jessup, Maryland, to drill the thousands of precisely placed openings on a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled milling machine. When parts were bent and assembled into final form, “The shippers were waiting,” Sirvet recalls nostalgically.
The reflective moment passes as Sirvet enthusiastically expresses thanks for the opportunity this important commission gave him. “It pushed the limits of what you could do technologically with one piece of aluminum that size,” he says. “How many people get to create that?”
Over the dozen years that Sirvet has been sculpting, he has crafted metal, wood and plastics; worked with manual and industrial processes; and designed for private, public and commercial settings.
A retrospective of his work is now on view among the contemporary European furnishings displayed in the ADLON showroom in Georgetown. His small- and large-scale sculptures are displayed on tables, mounted on walls and suspended from the ceiling. Fans can also view Sirvet’s work at the Farragut West Metro, where his new public sculpture wraps two exterior walls with a series of openwork metal discs that glow with amber light like galaxies of stars.
Throughout his evolving career, one characteristic has distinguished Sirvet from many other artists. “I am a science geek,” he readily acknowledges, crediting his father, “a brilliant mechanical engineer,” for this interest. He points to a lifelong love of nature—growing up among the forests and wetlands of northern New Jersey, later camping at some 45 national parks—as his inspiration.
Sirvet received a degree in finance and art history from Fordham University before deciding to study engineering at the University of Maryland. He took sculpture classes too, and stresses the links between science and art. “Structural engineering is more creative than people think,” he says. “You’re designing skeletons of buildings. You’re working closely with architects, suggesting alternatives such as ‘If you want this, it will cost $80,000. If you do it this way, it’s $8,000.’ You are in a creative process at the same time as the technical part.”
Sirvet worked as a professional engineer for 10 years, but soon felt sculpture’s pull. The magnet became stronger in 2000, when his friend, sculptor Sam Noto, suggested that Sirvet create a piece to exhibit at DC’s Artomatic that year. Noto also offered studio space in his workshop—which the two friends still share with four other sculptors today.
“Thrust” was completed in time for the show—after the budding sculptor worked on it almost nonstop for more than 200 hours. His first serious sculpture, it took the form of a projecting wave constructed of small steel plates hinged together with bolts. He knew the technique well, since as an engineer he often visited building sites and took photos of beautiful structural connections. In this application, the sculpture’s sweeping curve could be easily adjusted by tightening or loosening the bolts; these connections are part of the design’s beauty.
Sirvet continued to adapt the technique in varied forms and materials. “Weeping Phoenix of 2004,” now hanging at ADLON, is a graceful, symmetrical canopy rising eight feet. Its 262 polished-aluminum plates are assembled in rows. When the piece was displayed in a gallery in New York, it served an unexpected purpose—a couple was married beneath it.
The sculptor soon moved on to organic forms, still precisely engineered. To shape these jigsaw pieces he used a plasma cutter—an electric torch that slices through metal as sparks fly. The brass, copper or aluminum shapes were then connected with bolts to hardwood or Plexiglas.
In 2008, after working almost full-time as both engineer and sculptor, Sirvet decided to leave engineering. At that time in his art, he recalls, “I started to embrace ‘engineered’ decay.” His pieces became twisted and often riddled with holes, an approach that, he confesses, was obsessive.
It was also successful: Sirvet won the 2009 Award for Excellence in Metal Craft, presented by the James Renwick Alliance at Artomatic, for “Millennia,” which is a perfectly formed, three-foot-wide aluminum bowl exquisitely punctured by thousands of hand-drilled holes.
For the pierced work that has since become a signature style, Sirvet often favors polyethylene, a high-density plastic common in boats. He’s used the material in commissions for U.S. Embassies in Malta and Dubai, and for a screen installed on the terrace of a private home—a massive wall ornamented with 40,001 holes. (He can determine the exact number through AutoCAD, the computer-design program he used in his engineering days).
To fabricate his complex pieces, Sirvet turns to Products Support Inc., a precision manufacturing company whose clients include aerospace and defense contractors. He is in awe of their technical expertise in producing equipment accurate to within a thousandth of an inch.
“I come in and ask them to do fun, crazy things,” says the sculptor. “They tell me, ‘This is hard, and this is easy.’ It’s like when I was a structural engineer and I would figure out how to make a building stand up.” He grins broadly. “Now I’m on the other side.”
Tina Coplan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Michael Enn Sirvet’s sculpture is displayed indefinitely at ADLON Design, 1028 33rd Street, NW, 202-337-0810; adlondc.com. For more about Sirvet and his work, visit sirvet.com.