Sunfire: A Larger View of Life

By Sonia Balcer

The metallic structure which beckoned to me as a teenager in 1976 rose out of a scarred parking lot in a remote corner of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, its arms open to the enthusiasm of idealistic (at times socially awkward) teenagers seeking meaning amid the impersonal listlessness and empty routines their world had to offer. From that moment of first curious approach, I entered a realm of impossibilities and of discovery--impossibilities of the enormous scale of the task being undertaken, and discovery of who I was and where I was in a creative stream terrifying and invigorating in its challenge. And the task was indeed far greater than I was--a mammoth web of steel arcs and beams in perfect balance, signifying the unique scientific vision of its mentor, yet playfully beckoning me to try things I hadn't even heard of and climb mountains of unknown existential territory for the sheer joy of shaping and welding a frame piece waiting patiently to be joined to the whole. The structure coaxed me in emerging splendor to investigate the ways that metal bends and stretches under the force of welding, to join molten rivulets of two-inch thick iron in waterfalls of sparks from an acetylene torch, to sway far above the earth in a parabolic cradle receiving its specially-curved mirrors, to fashion boiler tubes and engine valves and structural gussets and all manner of the things which capture sunlight and turn it into heat and motion and electric aliveness. As a feat of construction it was more than the sum of its parts, for it not only stood as a solar concentrator, it sang out in joy for anyone who could listen--revealing a mysterious beauty of mathematical curves and intersecting beams constructed of discarded materials beginning their second life. It opened its arms at that intersection between wild imagination and practical fruition.

We were children, building beyond our years and beyond our knowledge--pouring into it as much as fifteen hours a day, while the metallic cradle stretched out its arms to reach the sky. We learned to build by the desire that was inside of us: the desire to create, and to form and to hold in our hands, the impossible dream as yet seen only with the eyes of our hearts. With the others, I began to learn the skills of designing and building the huge metal structure: layout and cutting (with oxyacetylene torch), grinding, drilling, bolting, pounding, sandblasting, painting, machining (with lathe and mill), refitting, intuitive structural analysis, and, of course, arcwelding. I have dangled high above the ground, bathed in sweat and splattered by searing drops of molten metal as I lifted the welder and touched the joints of the structure with my rod of fire, imparting strength and permanence into its limbs. I have welded all day and far into the freezing night, while the rain fell and sizzled off the incandescent steel. I have known hope and despair, light and darkness in the stretching and reaching beyond my limitations. The beauty of this metallic substance of a dream has indeed become a part of me, and has remained an inspiration for both the seeing and the expression of visions in a way that connects me to something larger than myself.

So, what did those years of weekends between 1976 and 1981 hold for us? Was the labor of those thousands of hours merely an exercise in learning a broad range of practical shop skills to be invested in a future engineering or technical capacity? Was our steadfast involvement just a place to find camaraderie with other youth rebelling against mindless conformity and uncreative futility? While it certainly encompassed aspects of both, it was far more. Sunfire was, and is, an awakening to grand possibilities-- an imaginative call to a greater aliveness of soul that is to be found in something larger and outside of one's self. It is an invitation to reach beyond the sphere of where one imagines any individual powerless to be of meaningful influence and engage genuinely to find a solid place in the world. It is realizing that one can approach an enormous challenge, not knowing how to apprehend the whole of it but one day at a time, one task at a time, making contributions on the scale of the moving of mountains. Equipped with little more than courage, faith, and love, it is giving one's self to creative expression from the heart that is nothing less than the very substance of how the world is transformed.

© 1997 Sonia Balcer
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Last Updated: Dec. 21, 1997. Created: Nov. 07, 1997.
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