Suspended from a cable wire, levitating overhead, soft clouds reflect light from a ceiling-high window. At first glance, these clouds look like balloons with ripples and shine, but upon closer inspection, these clouds are handcrafted sculptures of solid industrial steel.
Artist and associate professor of sculpture at Texas Tech, William Cannings was chosen to incorporate his art into Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport in May. Cannings was chosen for this project from among 350 submissions from Texas artists ranging from sculptors to painters to photographers. Houston Airports Public Art Curator Alton DuLaney said the panel of art experts chose Cannings’ work because it was uplifting, inspiring, peaceful and perfect for an airport.
“The William Cannings piece was part of a multi-project call that we put out about a year and a half or two years ago, in which we purchased 74 wearable works of art, which are small paintings, sculptures and objects that are movable. We commissioned 10 site-specific works. He was one of 10 artists chosen to create the site-specific works,” DuLaney said.
Cannings’ sculptures focus on taking raw industrial materials, inflating them and molding them into softer shapes. While working at Texas Tech, he developed the technique. He first asked himself the question: “What if I could inflate steel like a balloon? He said he enjoyed watching metals transform in ways people hadn’t considered.
Born in Manchester, England, Cannings said he spent his life divided between three passions: engineering, art and cycling. He understood mechanical work, was an accomplished cyclist, and had a passion for art. He said he viewed all of these as potential career paths.
“I was a big pain in the ass and my mom wouldn’t take care of me, so my dad used to take me to work with him when I was young on the weekends,” Cannings said.
His father, a carpenter, owned a construction company where Cannings began his journey as an artist. It was in this space that he said he learned many of the technical skills he implements in his art today.
“I never wanted to be employed or work in this field. It felt too tight. I like to paint and draw and make collages. So I went to art school and we had a workshop with a sculptor from Manchester,” Cannings said. “That workshop with the sculptor really bridged two different worlds for me, that kind of professional world that my dad lived in and the fine art world that I wanted to exist in. , and it kind of put me on a path that I knew sculpting was what I wanted to do.
He started his educational journey with the fine arts locally with an undergraduate program at Loughborough University so he could continue cycling. Cannings said he was a well-accomplished second-tier runner, which is one tier below the pros.
During his undergraduate years, Cannings discovered an exchange program with Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States. Although he could have pursued a career in cycling, the moment of the trade program in addition to a few injuries steered Cannings’ career completely towards art, he said.
“I am a jumper, not a spectator. I couldn’t plan my life because every time I tried to plan things you know the best laid plans of mice and men and something goes wrong and seems Ilike, well, I just seem to enjoy life more when it’s an opportunity that presents itself,” Cannings said. “It fits me well in the belly, follow it. And so I really led my life like that.
And just like that, Cannings said he emigrated to the United States more than 3,000 miles from his family. Little did he know it at the time, but VCU was and continues to be one of the best sculpting programs in the country.
“VCU is a very competitive environment and reminded me of the competitiveness of the cycling world which I really loved,” Cannings said.
Due to student debt and a difficult immigration status, Cannings took a year off to work as a British and Italian sports car mechanic. He said the opportunity reminded him of his time in the studio with his father and allowed him to further develop his mechanical and problem-solving skills.
Once he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts with VCU, Cannings was offered a free ride with Syracuse University, where he earned his master’s degree. Throughout his studies, Cannings worked as a studio assistant alongside his teachers and eventually held teaching positions.
“I love tools, I love crafting, and I’m proud of what I do, and I love doing it. And so, I was always hired by my faculty as a studio assistant. I look back and received better training as a studio assistant than what I actually did in my classes,” Cannings said.
In 2000, Cannings took a job at Texas Tech, teaching welding, foundry, and design classes. Moving to Texas, the Cannings family was impressed. He said the cultural mindset and democracy of the United States felt very familiar to him, but what he didn’t expect was the scale of things. Everything was bigger, from the trees to the open fields.
This move opened up a multitude of opportunities for the artist. During this period of his life, Cannings and his wife, Shannon, had two daughters, Cannings designed the sculpture space in the 3D Art Annex on campus, and his work began to take off, landing in galleries in Houston, Galveston and Dallas.
“Things really snowballed really quickly for me and put me in the spotlight with my work,” Cannings said. “I talked about being a jumper and not a spectator. I approach my works the same way sometimes. I was just wondering – I was wondering what if, and I was just asking about my practice and the materials that surround me.
Jerod Foster, Cannings’ friend and associate professor of practice in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media Industries, said one of the things he admires most about Cannings is his perspective.
Foster and Cannings met through a cycling group and got to know each other very well, Foster said.
One of the first things Foster noticed about Cannings was how much he loved West Texas and discovered the beauty of the plains.
Cannings’ cloud installation was inspired by the landscape around it, flat plains, open skies and saturated sunshine, he said.
“Living here on this beautiful flat plane of the estacado de llano, and the atmosphere that we have, the sense of time and space and a certain relevance as humans. We get these glorious moments of beautiful clouds and I was just wondering, you know, what kind of iconic cloud pop is that,” Cannings said.
When installed in May, the piece will feature 30 levitating clouds that have been cut, welded, inflated, sanded, primed and painted. Cannings said he credits his experiences working alongside his father in Nantwich, studying with his teachers, the discipline and perseverance he learned in cycling and fortuitous moments such as discovering new ideas for the lead to this point of his work.