I start every day by reflecting on a small drawing entitled, “Keys of an Abandoned Dream.” The drawing depicts a ring of keys cast upon the ground. The keys belonged to James Acord, a sculptor and friend whom I greatly admire.
Like many artists, Acord is driven by his creative vision; however, his dreams are grander than most. In the mid-1980s, he decided that he wanted to use the Fast Flux Test Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to transmute Technetium, a by-product of nuclear fission, into Ruthenium, a precious metal in the Platinum family. He would then cast the Ruthenium as the skullcap for his magnum opus, a one-ton granite sculpture entitled, “Monstrance for a Grey Horse.”
Acord, never one for hesitation, moved to Hanford and began his quest to use the US Government’s multi-billion dollar reactor for art. He took physics and nuclear engineering courses, befriended scientists, and set up his studio just a few miles from the reactor. He wrote letters to the powers that be and generally lobbied anyone who would listen about the merits of the project. Predictably, they were not enthusiastic about his dream.
While Acord’s efforts with Hanford stalled, he was able to convince a German company to give him a reactor fuel assembly. He planned to encase a portion of this spent fuel in his sculpture — its granite body safely containing the radioactivity. When the government blocked the importation on the grounds that he was not licensed, Acord became the only private individual in the world to obtain a radioactive materials handling license. He beamed when the assembly was unloaded at his studio.
His odyssey lead him to become the first artist-in-residence in the physics department of Imperial College London. He lobbied the British, with just as much ardor as he had the Americans, about the importance of his nuclear art. To quote Acord, “Art is as important as science. These are the two parallel paths through which we seek knowledge and understanding.”
In the end, no amount of persuasion was going to work. Acord finally left his studio and returned to his hometown of Seattle. For years, he carried the keys to his abandoned studio, his abandoned dream, repeatedly tossing them on a tabletop and drawing them, until one day he threw them into Puget Sound. This did not mark an end of Acord’s creative journey. It marked a new beginning. His attention turned to new ideas. “Monstrance for a Grey Horse” would not be his last sculpture.
I believe in the abandoned dream, whether it be the Beach Boys’ “Smile” album, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high skyscraper, “The Illinois,” or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The abandoned dream is often the most creative, provocative, and important. Even unrealized, it can have powerful effects. It can inspire others to be bold, to take risks, and to dream big. It can change the person who dared to dream it. Indeed, some of the life’s greatest insights are borne out of abandoned dreams.