Lifelike I-Beam Mobiles Float with Performance Plastics  

October/November 2020

Sculpted to resemble the massive and heavy structural steel girders used to construct skyscrapers, the I-beam mobiles of JF Jones float near weightlessly overhead with 3-D characters casually perched on the beams. One is distracted by his cell phone and appears to be perilously close to walking off an I-beam. Other characters — inspired by the 1932 “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photograph by Charles C. Ebbets — enjoy a lunch break seated on a beam. Key to the heavyweight lifelike look but actual light weight of Jones’s I-beam kinetic art pieces is his choice of SINTRA® graphic display board by 3A Composites USA, Inc.

Experienced in set and prop building for theatrical, television and film productions as well as furniture-making, Jones had used SINTRA for many years to create signage. “I wanted to find a material that would create the illusion of an I-beam but would be lightweight,” said Jones. “I had used SINTRA for display work. It’s flat, clean and perfect for applying vinyl graphics; plus, it can be drilled easily. It’s consistent in color and density.”

As a high-performance moderately expanded PVC board, SINTRA is a solution for graphic display projects that require high quality materials. SINTRA is available with premium bright-white surfaces and in a broad range of colors in gauges ranging from 1 mm to 12.7 mm and in standard sheet sizes ranging from 48" x 96" up to 2 meters x 120." Jones purchased SINTRA graphic display board for this project from the Greensboro, NC, USA location of distributor Piedmont Plastics.

Jones has been following his inspiration to create mobiles since he first saw the untitled mobile designed by artist Alexander Calder for The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., USA during a family trip in 2006. “It was Calder’s ability to use simple material to create work that was so simple in structure but so complex in its language and visual effect,” said Jones. “The massive mobile weighs 920 pounds yet it seems to be floating. It had a profound effect on me.”

Jones began creating “Calder-inspired” mobiles from SINTRA in 2007 for residential display as a part-time pursuit and teaching mobile-making classes. Creating mobiles grew into a full-time business for Jones and his wife, Naomi, with the addition of Modern Mobiles — mobile-making kits that allow anyone to build their own repositionable mobile.

“When I taught classes on mobile-making, students would ask if I could make something that they could put together,” said Jones. “So I developed a slider and made pieces to attach from SINTRA. It was a very available material and possessed all of the properties that we needed. People were inquisitive about mobiles and wanted to build their own. The aesthetic we provide with the kits bumps it up a notch or two. We just needed to find the right material. That was SINTRA.”

When Jones began experimenting with creating the I-beam aerial art pieces in 2012, he once again turned to SINTRA. Envisioning hanging sculptures that would span an area from 18 feet to 24 feet wide, Jones needed a lightweight substrate that could be cut easily and heat formed.

“With the mobile kits, we needed to be able to drill a hole in the edge of the material to accept the rod,” said Jones. “We tried other materials and went back to SINTRA. For the sculptures, we heat it up and shape it. SINTRA has been a terrific product for me. Its light weight has been critical for the sculptures because the beams are designed to float almost like they are weightless. I couldn’t make them out of steel.”

Jones builds the I-beams by cutting strips from 4-by-8-foot sheets of 6 mm SINTRA in the gray color (although he has painted some beams red). The beams are constructed just like steel I-beams with a top plate and a bottom plate, which are both grooved to accept a vertical piece that is secured with epoxy. Jones uses a combination of model-making computer software and gaming animation to create the characters, which are 3-D printed out of ABS plastic.  

Jones said he was inspired to create the I-beam sculptures because it allowed him to combine two of his favorite things — the illusion of weight and humor. “An I-beam is the perfect object to mess with someone’s perception of weight,” he said. “The sculptures look just like real I-beams, so people assume that the piece weighs a ton when in fact one of the largest mobiles weighs less than 10 pounds. It gives the impression of weightlessness the same way the large Calder piece does. It floats effortlessly. “

As for humor, Jones said, “I thought that it was funny to see a guy walking off the end of the beam looking at his cell phone. There is an instant connection with the audience. It’s also a very contemporary distraction.”

Jones has created eight I-beam sculptures in varying sizes for both public and corporate display. The first was selected in 2016 by the North Carolina Art Council as a public installation at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Guilford County, NC, USA. His latest work, entitled “Beams,” is displayed at Artplex Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Photography courtesy of JF Jones Designs.