Artist Tom Wuchina straightens one of the 100 aluminum tubes sprouting from the base of Pyradoptics.
I always thought of myself as Superman,” says Tom Wuchina. “Nothing was beyond my imagination. There was nothing I felt I couldn’t build.”
Wuchina’s life experience seems to bear out his super visions. He played football at Vanderbilt University, ran an art gallery in downtown Memphis during the 1970s, and helped create one of Memphis’ great brands as the director for outdoor signage for a rapidly expanding company called Auto Shack that would later change its name to AutoZone. “We were building 100 Auto Shacks a year,” he recalls. After a hurricane damaged 90 stores, “I bought more neon in one day than anyone in the history of the South.”
In 1985, Wuchina was an instructor at the Memphis College of Art when he was one of five winners of a grant competition sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. “It was a combined effort to put public art at all the welcome centers coming into the state of Tennessee,” he explains. His sculpture would welcome visitors arriving in Tennessee from Mississippi via I-55.
Wuchina’s winning proposal looked back to the beginnings of human civilization. When James Winchester founded this city on the Chickasaw Bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, he decided to give it the name of another, much older river metropolis. The exact time and circumstances of the founding of Memphis on the Nile are lost to antiquity, but it served as the capital of Egypt for at least a thousand years, and for most of that time it was the largest city on the planet.
In 1897, our city of Memphis was represented at the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in Nashville by a model pyramid, but there were no pointy buildings here. “When I came here, I was surprised that Memphis had never built a permanent pyramid,” Wuchina told The Commercial Appeal in 1986. “I’ve been aware of the city’s relationship to Egypt and its desire to have a pyramid for a long time. Somehow, when opportunity came along, I just felt it was my duty to be the one who did it.”
Wuchina was the right man at the right place at the right time. “Around that time, the University of Memphis was designated as a Center of Excellence. They started a whole new department, devoted to ancient Egypt, at the University of Memphis under Dr. Rita Freed. They had a tremendous amount of funding, and a massive library was donated to kickstart the research.”
Wuchina, an intellectual omnivore, dove into the archives to learn all he could about the pyramids of Giza. Already a believer in the power of pyramids to concentrate spiritual and magical energy, he wanted his pyramid to mirror the Great Pyramid of Kufu (formerly anglicized as “Cheops”). The angle of the walls would be exactly 51 degrees, 52 minutes, and 10 seconds. The colors would be derived from archeological evidence of the faded hues used in the Old Kingdom.
At 481 feet, The Great Pyramid was the tallest manmade structure on Earth for 3,800 years. While one gets the sense that Wuchina would love to work that big, his pyramid would eventually rise to just under 20 feet in height with a base area of 961 square feet.
In 2590 BC, Kufu’s architect Hemon had the wealth of a nation at his disposal to build the first wonder of the world. His work gangs employed tens of thousands to put in place more than 2.3 million limestone blocks over the course of decades. Wuchina’s materials and techniques were considerably lower budget and higher tech. “It was a collaboration between about 50 people and companies who produced this, because I was originally awarded $15,000. The sculpture eventually ended up costing me $45,000. That included my herd of cattle.”
The bottom third of Wuchina’s pyramid is made of concrete; the top uses a forest of aluminum tubes to suggest the remainder of the shape. “I chose to use really heavy aluminum tubing, with quarter-inch walls.” Wuchina says. “The pipes themselves — I had a hundred of them — cost almost $12,000. My budget went out the window right there. But I didn’t care.”
The system of tubes cut to the exact shape of the pyramid had a dual purpose. Each tube was painted with different colors — red, blue, yellow, and white — on their different faces. To someone in a car driving by the welcome center, shifting perspective creates an optical illusion. The pyramid appears to be solid for a moment in one color, then disappears, only to reappear in another color. “I like to play around and manipulate to fool the eye.” Wuchina told The Daily News in 1987.
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Wuchina with a scale model of Pyradoptics in 1986
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A complex system of steel beams holds the aluminum tubes in place.
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Each tube received four coats of aircraft paint.
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The sculpture was christened in May 1987, with a marching band and waters from the Nile and Mississippi Rivers.
“I’ve been aware of the city’s relationship to Egypt and its desire to have a pyramid for a long time. Somehow, when opportunity came along, I just felt it was my duty to be the one who did it.”
— TOM WUCHINA
The illusion draws people closer to the sculpture, where a flight of stairs takes them up into the phantom pyramid. “Part of the concept was to allow people to enter my works of art. I was doing rather large works of art at the time that were accessible to the public. I wanted them to be a part of it, to go inside of it, to see through it …. The tubes were left open so they captured the sound of the interstate. You could put your ear on one side of the pyramid and you can hear everything on the other side amplified.”
The stainless steel “capstone” housed a lighting system. An arrangement of mirrors created the illusion of a tunnel of light leading to the infinite sky, while a second set below plunged the viewer’s perspective deep into the earth. “When you stood in the power center of the pyramid, you were bathed in neon light,” Wuchina says.
By his own admission, Wuchina became obsessed with the work. The self-trained engineer designed a six-ton network of steel beams to stabilize the aluminum tubes. To keep the colors vibrant, he used expensive aircraft paint, painstakingly applied in a donated, climate-controlled warehouse over the course of a month. “They had to be kept above 60 degrees, but we did it in the dead of winter,” he recalls.
As 1987 dawned, Memphis was gripped with Egyptomania. The first Wonders exhibit brought treasures from the reign of Rameses The Great to Memphis, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors Downtown. The Wall Street Journal reported that the exhibit injected more than $75 million into the local economy. As the sculpture neared completion, a group of Memphis psychics gathered to imbue the structure with spiritual energy.
Finally, on May 21, 1987, the dedication ceremony kicked off with a concert by the Overton High School Marching Band, whose students performed “Pyramid Suite,” an original composition by Memphis composer Lyn Gillick Joyner. Wuchina decided to call his visual symphony of aluminum and concrete Pyradoptics. The structure was christened with a mixture of waters from the Nile and Mississippi Rivers. “I hope this stimulates Memphis to build another pyramid,” Wuchina told the Journal. “This great city should be known for something besides barbecue and Elvis Presley.”
Long after the initial buzz wore off, Pyradoptics became something of landmark. For 30 years, its flashing colors and changing shape has provided an unexpected moment of mystery and magic for unsuspecting travelers. “I wanted it to be a permanent fixture, something that would last as long as humanly possible,” Wuchina says. “Years after I put it up, I was still getting letters from elementary schools where teachers actually brought students to the pyramid.”
But Pyradoptics has not proven to be as durable as Kufu’s monument. The neon lighting no longer works, and concrete is not as permanent as desert limestone. Three years ago, the state decided to give the site a facelift. “When they tore the welcome center down, I had people on my Facebook page saying, ‘Now it’s finally perfect! They got rid of the building!’”
Matt Seltzer of the Memphis architectural firm archimania was tapped to design the new welcome center. “When we first got the commission for the job, it was the oldest welcome center in the state. The one thing the state wanted to preserve on the site was the sculpture. … What’s interesting from an art standpoint is that it is conceived to work both on the one-to-one room level, and at speed on the highway hundreds of feet away. And it’s successful at both of them.”
Seltzer adds that the years have added another layer of meaning to Pyradoptics. “It’s a time capsule of what people in Memphis thought was interesting at a particular time. … From a local perspective, there are a lot of us in the office who were around when Memphis was gripped with Egyptomania. The piece was born out of that. It helped cement that when you thought about Memphis, you thought about a pyramid, before there was a much larger one.”
The architect says the design team’s goal was to draw the eye towards Pyradoptics. “The buildings are laid out on a single walkway from north to south, and the walkway goes in and out of the main visitor’s center building. All of those buildings are aligned using the sidewalk as a critical path for the site. Everybody that walks onto the building site ends up on that walkway at some point in time. The only thing on the site that breaks that plane, that interrupts that walk, is the sculpture.”
The pains Wuchina took to help the sculpture withstand the test of time paid off, Seltzer says. “It’s in relatively good condition considering its age. Some of the paint on the pipes has faded, but the pipes are in perfect condition. The electrical systems and infinity neon are not working any more, but the components are still there and they look fine. The concrete base shows more wear and tear than anything else. One corner was actually hit by a car that jumped the freeway shoulder and ended up on the site.”
In January 2016, as the renovation took shape, Wuchina got some disturbing news. The Tennessee Department of Tourism informed him that there was no money available to finance the planned renovations to Pyradoptics, which was being swallowed by weeds, further cracking the concrete base. The initial repair estimate, given to Wuchina last May, was $80,000. If the structure could not be repaired, the artist was told, it would be destroyed.
Wuchina, now a semi-retired teacher in Williamson County, Tennessee, could not afford to finance the renovations himself. He reached out to his original contractors and friends in the construction industry, who were able to put together a counter bid of $38,000. Wuchina gathered support from ArtsMemphis and the UrbanArts Commission to help spread the word to donors. “Public art is a meaningful investment in our shared spaces and one that has to be maintained,” says Lauren Kennedy, executive director of the UrbanArts Commission. “It is unfortunate that the construction around the new welcome center did not take Tom Wuchina’s sculpture into consideration and that the integrity of the piece is now in jeopardy. We support Tom’s efforts to save the work and are working to address the ongoing maintenance of city projects as well.”
Wuchina is gathering donations through the crowdfunding website GoFundMe and is seeking the support of individual donors. He has until July 2017 to raise the money to ensure that Memphis’ first permanent pyramid sticks around. Pyradoptics is the lasting symbol of his lifelong philosophy: “To think things no one has ever thought before, to see things no one has ever seen before, to make things no one has ever made before.”