Spirit of Water by British artist Gerry Judah makes a big, blue, metaphorical splash on the plaza in front of the newly expanded BMO Centre at Stampede Park in Calgary, as if a suddenly released torrent of water has hit the pavement and been tossed upward and outward by the impact.

Why metaphorical? Because the bright aqua blue sculpture, though inspired by a splash, is five stories tall and made of steel that weighs 112,000 pounds (56 tonnes.)

You might expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer size and heft of the public artwork, unveiled on May 22, but the opposite is true. The building behind it is enormous; the sculpture is a perfectly scaled intermediary between art and architecture. It easily holds its own, engages the eye, and beckons “Come closer.” As you approach it, walk around it and stand under it, Spirit of Water opens up into a network of air-filled circles and ovals whose edges catch the light and, like a line drawing, articulate the work’s sinuous, undulating curves. As you move, and as the light or the weather changes, aspects of the sculpture’s forms and colour appear to shift and change. The essentials for life combine in a form that symbolizes water’s power and energy.

Judah, a British artist based in London, was one of 218 artists and artist teams from Canada, the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and India, who entered an international public art competition for this $2.12 million commission awarded by the Calgary Stampede and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC). The competition was organized and managed by the Calgary-based art consultants Art to Public. Judah’s proposal was selected by a volunteer jury of seven Albertans, including Christine Sowiak, director of the Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, and Su Ying Strang, director of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge.

Judah is a set designer, installation artist, sculptor and painter who was born in Calcutta, India, in 1951 and immigrated at the age of 10 with his family to England. He studied fine art at Goldsmiths, University of London, graduating with honours, and did postgraduate work in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. After university, he began making sculpture and worked in the 1970s and 1980s as a stagehand and scenic designer which led to work for theatre, ballet, museums, film, television, and video on projects that ranged from making a city out of biscuits for a TV commercial to designing sets for a Nureyev ballet. He has made large public sculptures, including several for the Goodwood Festival of Speed that that incorporate race cars, for cities around the world.

He describes himself as a project artist. “I don’t brand myself,” Judah said. “Each project informs the next thing I do. I can draw from a tremendous well of experience.” Understanding the importance of water for the city’s development at the confluence of two rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, led him to make water the focus of his proposed work. He wanted as well to embody water’s power and dynamism in its liquid state as a reflection of the city’s energy. Then he boiled these ideas down to a gigantic splash.

Spirit of Water is caught in a moment of frozen action rendered by 210 steel tubes with diameters measuring from 0.5 metres to 2 metres. The sculpture’s largest curves are cut and rolled from sheets of steel. Judah worked out how to achieve the “splash” with his engineers. The ingenious process can be thought of as bundling tubes of different sizes in clusters with different angles and varying configurations and then carving out the shape. As well as material, the open cylinder becomes a major element of the design.

Using an industrial ready-made material such as a steel tube, Judah said, was economical and efficient and allowed him to make the most expressive work he could with the budget he had. Steel tubes of different sizes were gathered from companies in England, Belgium and Italy and shipped to Halifax in six containers that made the trip to Calgary by train. The sculpture was then assembled in Calgary. He used a similar approach on Jacob’s Ladder (2017), a white, 34-metre-high spiraling sculpture commissioned for the vast Gibb’s Farm Sculpture Park in New Zealand, made of varying lengths of square sectional steel.

For Spirit of Water, however, he decided not to go with a standard RAL colour from a chart that would usually be used for outdoor work. “I wanted my own blue, a water blue,” Judah said. He mixed up his blue and sent a sample to the paint company, which produced the customized colour he calls Spirit of Water Blue. “This is a blue/green mix with the right kind of glaze and a bounce between green and blue. It will look the same in 100 years’ time. That’s what I aimed for, a piece that’s beautiful and timeless.”

In bright Alberta sunlight, it is a dazzling saturated colour that completes this engaging work of public art. Kudos to the Calgary Stampede for stepping up for contemporary public art that looks to the city’s future.