Like a boulder teetering on a hillside above Wile E. Coyote's head in a Road Runner cartoon, an enormous metal ball is poised above customers' heads at the car rental center at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The gleaming sphere, six feet in diameter and perched 20 feet overhead on steel arcs that run the length of the building, looks as if it were gathering the momentum to skitter back up toward the ceiling.
Commissioned by the Maryland Aviation Administration, the piece is called Momentum Study. It is the most recent creation of David Hess, a 39-year-old artist from Phoenix, Md., who for years has been creating monumental artworks of startling ingenuity and elegant whimsy.
His efforts can be seen around the city in sometimes unexpected places: Polished steel benches at Johns Hopkins Hospital's oncology center, elaborately sculpted ornamental banisters at the American Visionary Art Museum and giant steel discs that look as though they've just tumbled off the entrance canopy at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.
In some ways, his airport sculpture, which was installed in December, is a culmination of ideas he's been working on for years. "A lot of work I've been doing [has been] with objects that look like they're going to do something," he says.
"They're just poised on the edge of a moment when something is going to happen. You get the sense the ball really could roll forward. That precariousness interests me because there's an anticipation, a sense of energy coming forward."
Hess' art often deals with the unpredictability that permeates life. He works in wood and metal but often uses these conventional materials in humorous, highly unconventional ways.
"He's extremely inventive with materials and uses things in the most unusual way," says Martha Macks, owner of Goya-Girl Press, where the artist has made prints. "His work has a sort of comical element to it and yet it's very psychological, too, because when you start thinking about why he has chosen these materials, you look at them in a new way."
In 2002, Hess created the piece that now sits at Mergenthaler. Called Inertia Study, it consists of three 10-foot-diameter cylinders poised above the concrete canopy of the school's entranceway, with two more sitting upright on the ground as if they had just rolled off their high perch.
A similar idea animated another 2002 sculpture, one Hess created for an exhibition at Evergreen House, the former Garrett family mansion on Charles Street now owned by the Johns Hopkins University.
"At Evergreen House, I put three large cast iron wheels on platforms in the trees on the front lawn, so they looked like they were about to roll off," Hess recalls. "You can't touch them, they can't move, but they look like they will."
As a child, Hess was drawn to Road Runner cartoons that he watched on television. "I was always fascinated by that cartoon, where you see this huge, Rube Goldberg apparatus and everything hinges on something happening," he says.
"You always see Wile E. Coyote trying to launch this enormous boulder at the Road Runner, which I thought was funny and also dangerous, because once it did come loose, something would happen that you didn't expect."
As a 7-year-old, Hess learned first-hand about life's capriciousness. He was afflicted by alopecia, an autoimmune disease of the skin that results in total loss of hair on the scalp and body.
"It's one of those things that obviously forms your personality," Hess says. It's given me a certain perspective on what it means to look different, but maybe also the idea that not fitting in is OK, too."
Though the experience was painful, it also shaped a philosophy of life that has served him well as an artist. "When something like that happens, there's a sense of loss that makes you think that time really is fleeting and anything can happen at any time, so you better make the best of your circumstances," he says.
In high school, Hess met a physician, Alex Haller, who was head of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and also suffered from alopecia. Perhaps because they shared similar childhood traumas, Haller became a kind of role model for Hess.
"I wanted to be a doctor and do art as an avocation," says Hess, whose father is a businessman and whose mother is a photographer. "I identified with [Haller] visually and his ability to cure people, to save people, though I also knew there's a side to my personality where I like creating things."
Hess entered Dartmouth College in New Hampshire intending to study sciences. But after his sophomore year he went to Florence - and never really looked back.
"That summer I worked as studio assistant for a Japanese sculptor who was my professor at Dartmouth," Hess recalls. "I was just really into the creative stuff more than the science, and I guess I decided then to go full tilt with the sculpture and abandon my attempt to be a surgeon."