Sunday, October 17, 2021

From the Magazine: To the Stars

Hubert Phipps’ space-age sculpture expands Boca’s public-art footprint

As you motor toward the parking lot of Boca Raton Innovation Campus, you can’t miss it: the towering, gleaming, three-pronged “Rocket” levitating off a concrete pad just outside the semicircle of former IBM property. After more than two years of design, build and transport, this 30-foot high, 22-foot wide sentinel of polished stainless steel has lifted off.

“Rocket” is a landmark for Boca Raton’s Art in Public Places program, a joint effort between BRiC, the Boca Raton Museum of Art and the artist, Hubert Phipps. A Virginia-based sculptor with ties to a Palm Beach pioneer family, Phipps conceived of “Rocket” as almost a doodle in his sketchbook, long before he inked a deal for the largest work of his career.

“It appealed to me, and ideas that appeal to me I take a little step further,” he says. “I made a maquette, worked with clay, and then brought it into the computer. [Eventually] I made a 27-inch model of the sculpture in a matte finish. It was on display at an exhibition at Coral Springs Museum of Art. And Irvin Lippman came by, and saw the exhibition.”

A fellow artist connected Phipps with Lippman, and the idea hatched to expand “Rocket” into its enormous present form. Phipps contracted a foundry in China to build the piece, and the final work, in three pieces, bounced around South Korea, Japan, Mexico and Texas before being off-loaded in New Orleans and trucked to Boca Raton. Its construction at BRiC involved assembling the three panels with 12 flanges and 96 bolts.

“It was a great learning experience that I’m just one little cog here,” Phipps says. “I don’t even know how to calculate how many people were involved. When I think about my small team in my studio, the digital artists I work with, the foundry that made the small maquette, the foundry in China, the shipping people and the trucking company, and the BRiC team with the multiple engineers and the marketing people and lawyers to work out the legal documents for the loan.” [“Rocket” is on loan for five years, after which BRiC has the option to purchase.]

After all of this, “I’m just thrilled it’s here. The architecture works really well with the sculpture; the sculpture works really well with the architecture.”

As with the iconic “Bean” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, visitors are encouraged to walk under and around “Rocket,” enjoying their distorted reflections off its surface. Like many of Phipps’ previous works in steel, it evokes a certain retro-futurism: a sleek ‘60s sci-fi dispatch from the frontiers of engineering.

At the time of this interview, parts of “Rocket” still needed to be tweaked, curbing Phipps’ enthusiasm. “I’m still obsessing over all the detail work,” he says. “That’s this OCD thing. It takes time, but I get over it.”

This drive toward perfectionism has accompanied Phipps throughout his past pursuits, and it runs in his family. His paternal great-grandfather, entrepreneur and investor Henry Phipps, once owned one-third of the Town of Palm Beach. At around age 11, Hubert moved to the island with his uncle, Michael Phipps, a 10-goal polo player who would fly helicopters into the backyard of their 22-acre property—“James Bond stuff,” Hubert says.

“I found out quickly about how people reacted: ‘Oh, you’re a Phipps,’” he recalls. “I felt, as an adolescent, ostracized. I just wanted to be one of the rest of the guys and gals. I was buying into this whole myth about money and the easy life. And then that whole guilt trip about, ‘I’ve got money, so I’m supposed to be happy?’ I believe I’ve overcome that.”

For part of his adult life, Phipps raced cars professionally, and flew planes like his uncle; their aerodynamic forms were an influence on “Rocket.” But his success as an artist developed after he tried to follow his kin into big business.

“I continually eschewed my art talent to go into businesses that failed,” he says. “I had to justify my financial position by being financially successful, and it was a disaster.”

As for the Phipps surname that emblazons a plaza and oceanfront park in Palm Beach? “It’s a name,” he says. “Henry’s not there. It’s a story; it’s interesting, and then it’s not interesting.”

This story is from the September/October 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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