In McKinley Park rests a building across the street from a vinegar factory decked out in colorful artwork of characters and scenes from the video game series “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat.”
Aside from the mural work, the building itself is unassuming, but that’s before you realize the people within were behind the construction of Hebru Brantley’s iconic and colorful aviator-goggle-sporting “Flyboy,” a 16-foot statue erected at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier in May, and helped in the creation of the Color Factory, an interactive art museum in Willis Tower this summer.
Welcome to Bridgewater Studio, a fabrication studio that opened seven years ago and does custom work for retail clients, cultural institutions like the Field Museum and the WNDR Museum, and other location-based entertainment venues.
In June, Bridgewater was working on materials for the touring immersive King Tut exhibit for National Geographic in Washington, DC that will move to Boston afterward.
“Much like stagehands, we tend to be very much behind the scenes,” said Patrick Justice, Bridgewater Studio partner and vice president of production. “I always tell people, if you’re out in the world and ask ‘how do you make something like that?’ It’s a company like ours.”
Walking into one of the studio’s two production buildings, steps from CTA’s Orange Line, one hears a whirring/buzzing sound. Walk back further and you’ll discover it’s a machine cutting a massive block of Styrofoam into a vase that will be used for an exhibit in Boston centered on King Tut. It’s a sight to behold that A) Styrofoam comes that large and B) a machine that looks like it could be used on an assembly line to make cars can make precision art that is both historically accurate, light and transportable. In other parts of the space, employees are going over other projects, including fine-tuning by hand, the look of a sphinx made out of yellow resin (that looks like butter).
“We get to be involved with really cool projects,” said Eric Cup, Bridgewater’s president and CEO. “As we’ve grown, we’ve gotten to be involved in more high profile ones that more people get to see. I still get a kick out of seeing the thing that we did for ‘Shameless.’”
“Yep, we spent six months working on that and it’s on screen for 10 seconds,” Justice said.
From the inside of a spaceship for Amazon Prime Video’s “Night Sky” to a realistic-looking resin bear created for public hugging purposes for a local brewery to promote their new IPA, Bridgewater Studio’s work has run the gamut since they’ve been in existence.
“They said: ‘Can you make us a bear that looks ultra real?’” Cup recalls. “I said ‘yes, absolutely, how many would you like? They said one. Great. Then I turned to Patrick and I said ‘how are we going to do this?’
“That’s how a lot of our jobs start,” Justice said.
“That’s part of the fun,” Cup said. Justice laughs at having to do research on furry websites to make sure the look was accurate. But the piece came together successfully.
“We did it as two pieces — the head, since there’s so much detail, we 3D printed it and from the head down, created it out of foam on the robots and then we upholstered the whole thing with faux fur and they loved it. ”
Robotics specialist Neil Hamilton uses CAD software to program the robotic machinery to do what they’re supposed to do, cut and trim in the right places with the sophistication that he told it to do.
“These machines … you’ve seen these in automotive plants; they are set up to do one job, 24 hours a day for 10 years. Ours do a different thing, every day, every shift, twice a day,” Cup said. “Everything that we do on here is a new adventure. Every one of our customers comes to us with a unique set of parameters. And we have to solve all these challenges as part of our process, which is actually one of the things that we love the most because it’s problem-solving. It’s different every day. Even though we might have made similar things, it’s very rare that we make the same thing multiple times. So it keeps it fresh.”
When something needs to be forged in resin, Bridgewater has two massive 3D printers that have been running nonstop since they got them earlier this year. Tanks filled with about 1,500 pounds of liquid, photosensitive resin each help turn these projects into realities.
“A good analogy would be if you were taking a picture and then moving it down a little bit and every time it takes a picture, it adds a little bit to it,” Cup said. “It’s a light process; the laser is a flash and that flash cures the resin and makes it solid.”
Hamilton came to Bridgewater with a mechanical engineering background. It took him eight hours to program the code to cut the vase from Styrofoam. He said he was looking at jobs at manufacturers for air compressors before he found his home with Bridgewater. Hamilton didn’t want to make the same widget over and over again hundreds of different ways. He wanted something cooler. He’s been at Bridgewater for four years now.
“When we hire people in this industry, there are many career opportunities that are adjacent to what we do, but it’s not like going to welding school where you have a very defined career path or track, in order to get here,” Cup said . “Someone who likes what we do is usually interested in a lot of different things and can’t find that job that keeps engaged.”
Patrick agrees. “We have welders and carpenters and electricians and graphic designers, people with engineering backgrounds, CAD backgrounds — a lot of disciplines cross populate with what we do,” he said.
Hamilton worked on the Flyboy statue, programming the robots to carve the larger body from a 3-foot-tall figurine. Hamilton said the smaller figurine was 3D-scanned and fitted with a skeleton in it, so it could be posed. Once the look was achieved on the smaller model, the figure was scaled up and the studio team had to build the statue in sections.
“It’s very much like a human being, it’s got bones of metal in there that support the whole thing and allow it to go together because it’s too big to ship as one piece,” Cup said. “They’re all bolted connections … the seams and joints are sealed so that it doesn’t get filled up with water on the inside. The natural break lines, the bottom of the shirt, where the shoes transition to the pant legs, and the torso and the head, all of those are bolted together so that it’s easier to assemble and then when our painters worked on it — not on scaffolding, but something that’s at ground level.”
“It has to go through a structural engineering review,” Justice said. “We needed to have 4,000 pounds worth of counterweight to the bottom so it doesn’t tip over or slide across the pier.”
When asked if they will be on hand for another Hebru statue. Cup said that’s “hush, hush.”
The company that started in Cup’s West Loop living room with Justice — two people with degrees in theater — now has over 50 employees and operates in 60,000 square feet of fabrication space.
“It grew quickly and organically because we love what we do,” Cup said. “It’s very much like a theater show in that there’s an opening day. If you spent a million dollars on a shoe campaign that revolves around a specific event like the All-Star game, there is no ‘we’ll be there tomorrow,’ the event is over.”
With the ability and the flexibility to expand and contract as business needs require, Justice, a Ferguson, Missouri-native, said they are often doing up to a dozen jobs big and small in various stages from a few days to months.
Cup, a Pittsburgh native, prides Bridgewater’s growth and their formula: Do good work. Have fair pricing and be easy to get along with. Prior to the pandemic, the company held internships for youth to learn about the many facets of fabrication. Many Bridgewater Studio employees live nearby, enjoying learning on the job as they bring their expertise into the fold to strengthen the team.
Yasmin Panjwani found the company on Craigslist. A photography hobbyist with a background in graphic design and film, her past translated into her position at Bridgewater as graphics department head.
“Community involvement, making an impact with what we do is also very important to us,” Cup said. “If you want to sit on a factory line and pump out widgets, this is the worst job you could ever have. But if you like coming into work every day and being challenged with, ‘how do you create a giant sculpture?’ this is the best job.”
“As we’ve grown, in addition to the coolness of the projects is the assembling of our team,” Cup said. We’re really proud of our team. Using a sports analogy, we’ve got a place-kicker, but in an emergency, (others) will run out and be the quarterback. It’s fun to see that dynamic. I think about ‘what if we didn’t do this?’ And these 62 people would probably have never met each other.”
It’s a group that Cup and Justice say is “a crew of misfits and weirdos under one roof, ourselves included.”