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The HyLife: Bending steel and light, Paul Steinkoenig creates the sound of hope

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Posted on: May 11, 2023

By Jessica Arends

When Hyattsville resident Paul Steinkoenig read an article on recycling in elementary school, he didn’t know that decades later it would lead him to create large outdoor sculptures of repurposed steel, glass and light. Six of Steinkoenig’s pieces have been installed around the DMV, including two sculptures in Riverdale Park. 

Steinkoenig’s work reflects his wide-ranging experiences, including counseling gang members and prison inmates, renovating homes, and volunteering for the United Nations in Afghanistan. As he notes on his website, “I have now set out to portray beauty and balance through my art from the chaos that my soul has seen.”

On a breezy day, you may hear Steinkoenig’s latest installation before you see it: three salvaged industrial gas cylinders hang from a  12-foot metal arch at the corner of Madison Street and Cleveland Avenue in Riverdale Park, in front of the Chambers Funeral Home and Crematorium. Shiny clappers ring the cylinders whenever there is a breeze, each sounding out like a soulful meditation bell.

‘Sanctuary 2’ sculpture, located at the intersection of Madison Street and Cleveland Avenue in Riverdale Park
Photo credit: Jessica Arends

“That one’s called ‘Sanctuary 2: Faith, Hope and Love,’” said Steinkoenig, who studied at the Boston University School of Theology and served as a minister in the 1980s. “All of the world’s great religions say, ‘We’ve got to do this together.’ They are the three tenets that really bind us together: faith, hope and love.”

Sculptor Paul Steinkoenig and his sculpture ‘Sanctuary 2,’ at the intersection of of Madison Street and Cleveland Avenue in Riverdale Park
Photo credit: Jessica Arends

Tuning each cylinder to the right pitch meant cutting off narrow strips with an angle grinder — an intense, two-week effort, according to Steinkoenig. 

“I must have cut those things at least 50, 60 or 80 times. I don’t know, because I’d say, ‘Well, this one’s close. Now just take off a quarter of an inch. It’s almost there.’ Then I’d test it and it’d be too much, so I’d have to take more off the other ones,” said Steinkoenig. “Well, it definitely paid off because I have to be honest — I’ll come up, and if the wind is blowing, it’s really lovely.”

Steinkoenig has been designing and building contemporary abstract sculptures with repurposed materials like steel and glass for the past 10 years. As a home renovations contractor, he salvaged various materials  including copper pipes, glass construction blocks and steel studs from commercial properties. One now disassembled piece included 12 lawn mower blades he found at a scrap yard. Steinkoenig also uses timber to build the scaffolding necessary to support and assemble such weighty materials.  The drive to reuse materials, which started with that recycling article, continues to inspire his work. “When we say, ‘Let’s just throw it away’ —  there is no ‘away,’” he emphasized.

Steinkoenig’s “In Harmony” sculpture, installed in September 2021 at Oxon Hill Manor, a former tobacco plantation in Prince George’s County, addresses race relations. Fifteen rectangular metal blades extend up from a gravel-filled block like giant feathers. The blades are the same width and height but have different surface treatments, which represents the diversity of our identities, according to Steinkoenig. The sound when the blades clang against each other creates a harmony, something Steinkoenig said he hopes we continue to aspire toward.  

Steinkoenig’s latest innovation has been using solar power to illuminate his sculptures from within. Steinkoenig was fascinated when he saw how playing with light could make large glass blocks from a demolished bathroom wall glow like crystal balls. Incorporating solar-powered lights and these glass blocks in his sculptures, like the Riverdale Park-based sculpture “Solar Hope,” achieved this iridescent effect without the messiness of electrical cords.  

The metal columns of “Solar Hope” have aged a bit over time, resulting in an unanticipated, yet appropriate, post-apocalyptic feel, according to Steinkoenig, and this emphasizes the importance of the light features. “Light to me fills our beings with purpose,” he said. 

Steinkoenig also used a similar technique in “Light in the Darkness,” a sculpture installed last month at Foggy Bottom in D.C., which includes a large cube made from stainless steel and glass with lights that fills up the inner space to make it glow. 

As to how he creates his designs, Steinkoenig says it’s better to wait for inspiration to find him than to seek it out. “When I try to think of something to build, I think, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ But then I’ll be meditating or walking or I’ll wake up from a dream and scribble down a thumbnail sketch. Then I go back to bed and look at it the next day and think, ‘I’m glad I wrote that down!’”

As more and more of Steinkoenig’s designs are accepted, he’s looking to make the building process more efficient, and now contracts with a metal fabricator to help cut materials. This eases the physical demands of the work and allows Steinkoenig to spend more time on designing and submitting applications. 

From his artist statement, Steinkoenig says, “Living life to the fullest is about living through my passion—and not holding back in the face of fear. Life gets away too quickly not to live inside of those moments that make my heartbeat faster. I am pleased to live in this moment by creating what pours out of me through my art.”

This article has been updated.

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