Oct 30th 2017

When Art Explodes… Literally

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Many artists face challenges when it comes time to deliver their work—the paint isn’t dry, the circuits are fried, the sculpture is falling apart… What if, upon delivery, you suddenly realized that your work of art was about to explode? Artist, pilot, and Northrop Grumman risk manager, Alan Harkins, sat down with me to reflect on the worst and best day of his career.

Adam: Before we get into your art piece, can you please paint a picture for our readers of who you are outside of work?

Alan: Born and raised here, in Redondo Beach. I’m actually second-generation—my dad was also born here. Outside of work, I’m a flight instructor. So that’s what I do… I fly.

Adam: How did you get into flying?

Alan: I started when I was sixteen—ended up getting all my certificates… flight instructor, airline transport pilot… Technically per the FAA, I can be a pilot on an airliner. But what I mostly do is just instruct and teach people to fly.

Adam: Was it this enthusiasm for flying that brought you to look for work in the aerospace industry?

Alan: What happened was… I was sitting in class as a senior in high-school and the teacher said to us, “Hey, everyone, Northrop Grumman…” (which was TRW at the time,) “… is hiring and they’re going to pay you $7.10 an hour.” This was 1979 mind you and to a high school student, that was a ton of money. Then he said, “And you’re going to be a janitor.” The shift was 5:30 to 9:30 five days a week. So I started at Northrop Grumman as a part-time janitor.

Adam: And the rest is history, huh?

Alan: It’s worked out very well for me.

Adam: So what is your current role and what are some of your responsibilities?

Alan: The technical title is Facilities Risk Manager. There’s a finite amount of money in Facilities—what we do is help decide where to put the money to get the best bang for our buck from a risk perspective.

Adam: So how does a giant rock sculpture gig end up on your desk?

Alan: I used to be a Facilities Project Engineer who built things—like landscaping for example. Now I do risk but we were just slammed with all this work. I saw this job come up that was listed as “landscaping,” so I raised my hand and said, “Hey I can do that if you want me to help.” They said, “Yes!” So I inherited it.

Adam: So where did it all begin? Were you handed a bunch of drawings or concepts or…

Alan: So the whole story with the sculpture… I was driving through Idaho and I saw all these rocks standing up and it gave me the idea. I knew the principles of 3s and 5s for balance, so I thought of doing three of these pillars rising up out of the ground… you know… Thompson, Ramo, and Wooldridge—the original pillars of this particular Northrop Grumman site.

The quarry was in Washington. The idea was to get the basalt structures (rocks) and have graduating pieces of rock going bigger to smaller as if busting out of the ground. The quarry sent pictures of samples and I just picked three of them. They shipped my choices to a quarry in Palos Verdes where we could go check them out and approve them.

Adam: And how did that visit go?

Alan: Well, let me start by pointing out that the rocks come from a sheet face. They drill a bunch of holes, they put dynamite in the holes, and then they blow up the dynamite and they get their rocks. So now the rocks are lying on the ground and we’re walking around them and I see a hole drilled in one of the rocks. I knew what it was. So I look in there and there’s a string coming out of it.

Adam: And I bet you knew what that was too.

Alan: I said, “Guys, I like the rock but you need to figure out what’s going on there and make sure that’s safe.” They said, “Oh okay, okay, okay.”

Two weeks later, they started the install on a Friday. They were scheduled to work the whole weekend. I checked in on them a couple times and when it was all done, I walked over on Monday afternoon, walked around, and… there’s my hole. I look inside and…

Adam: There’s your string.

Alan: I just thought, “Oh man.”

Adam: What do you do?

Alan: I got away. I made sure nobody else came close. I called up Environmental Health and Safety and I said “Hey, I got this problem.” I called Security and they called the cops. Redondo Police Department came and they called the Fire Department.

Adam: So it’s already in the ground at this point?

Alan: Oh, it’s mounted.

Adam: Permanently there?

Alan: Permanently there. Yeah, there is a full blown rebar concrete foundation that it’s sitting on. It’s not going anywhere.

So the cops and the fire department come over. We cordon off everything at the plaza level. The cops figure, “Well, this is a bomb.” So they call in the bomb squad. So they show up and put on their gear and full suits. Meanwhile, I’m evacuating all of the surrounding buildings… So there’s like… I’m guessing five or six hundred people just standing around in the fire drill areas.

The bomb squad walks over with this device that looks just like a shotgun, but it has a water cartridge. What they do is shove the gun into the hole and then back off and trigger it remotely. The water mimics a shotgun blast and displodes whatever devices are in there.

So we’re all standing there and then they trigger it and we hear this little “pffff.”

Adam: Nothing?

Alan: They called it a “squib.” It’s basically dead. There was never any threat.

February 15, 2008, Redondo Beach, Calif.: Harkins’ “squib” lodged in the side of his Northrop Grumman rock sculpture, post displosion.

Adam: So is the hole still there? Can people go look at this thing?

Alan: No, the explosion blew off the side. That’s how we were able to take the photo. I made them replace that whole rock. I kept a small chunk of it though.

Adam: Are you happy with how it turned out?

Alan: For the most part. My pet-peeve is the lighting. They had proposed a huge amount of lighting – up-lights under the trees and all kinds of stuff. I immediately cut it in half, it was just over the top. I think I could’ve cut even more.

Adam: Have you gotten any feedback on it since it went in?

Alan: One funny thing that someone said to me a couple months later… I was in the cafeteria and the landscaping job came up and I said, “Oh yeah, I was a part of that.” This lady said, “Oh, I love the troll army!” I said “Uh… excuse me?” I don’t remember the name of the bush but there’s a brownish beige bush I put in over there and it looks like little troll guys. She calls it her troll army. She said she loves sitting out there and having her lunch with her trolls.

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