Lockers - remember them? - become art at Lower Merion High School

Peter Gard, an artist and grad of Lower Merion High School, formed dozens of old locker doors into a giant ball that now hangs in the lobby of the school.

When students return to Lower Merion High School for the new school year in September, they will be greeted by an unusual orb floating 25 feet above their heads in the atrium outside the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium — and it’s not a basketball.

Suspended from the ceiling is a 700-pound sphere, or rather Lockersphere, a large-scale metal sculpture that is both whimsical and meaningful and made up, as the name suggests, of old locker doors, 100 of them.

The sculpture is the work of metal artist Peter Gard, a 1993 Lower Merion graduate, who was commissioned in 2009 to create an original work of art for the “new” Lower Merion High in Ardmore, the $100 million building that opened in 2010 (so not exactly new anymore). He walked through the old school, a grand stone edifice built in 1911, and envisioned working with pieces of steel from the building after it was demolished.

Then he found inspiration lining the cinder-block halls.

“I thought, ‘What means school more than lockers?’ ” said Gard, who studied sculpture and glass-blowing at Alfred University in New York, and recently moved to Newtown, Bucks County, with his wife and two sons.

Gard ripped out hundreds of lockers – 3,000 pounds worth – and stored them in his shop in Philadelphia. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with them, although he said his larger creations lean toward fundamental forms like spheres, cubes, or cones.

Although he works mostly with private commissions, Gard has created pieces for public spaces such as the giant aluminum leaf ball suspended over a lake at Jenkins Arboretum and Gardens in Devon, which also commissioned metal tree gates, and a wheel and key made out of steel for Croft Farm Art Center in Cherry Hill.

Gard looked at the lockers – rectangular, boxy, angular – and, as he’s done in many past projects, decided to “shift shapes a little to create something entirely new that hasn’t been seen before.”

The lockers varied in sizes, from about six to 10 inches wide, and were yellow, red, or maroon. To create the 7½-foot sphere, Gard put the doors through a plate-rolling machine to bend them. The doors are crisscrossed in a pattern that looks like strips of colored paper cutouts, while the overall effect is retro-futuristic, like a Steampunk piñata.

The only guideline he had was that “we wanted to make some type of connection from the old building to the new building,” said principal Sean Hughes.

“Peter came up with the idea of lockers, which is kind of ironic because most students don’t use lockers anymore” – textbooks are yielding to laptops, Hughes said. “But it’s kind of a reflection on the old building, and students who had been there and opened these lockers.”

Former art teacher Louise Pierce said she suggested Gard when Hughes asked teachers for the names of artists. Having first taught Gard as a substitute teacher when he was in sixth grade, Pierce had kept in touch with him and knew he was doing large-scale work.

Camera icon David Swanson
Artist Peter Gard, with son Lucas, was commissioned to create a sculpture for the new Lower Merion High school. He saved dozens of locker doors and formed them into a giant ball that now hangs in the lobby of the school.

She said she loved his concept, “especially that it marries the old school to the new school. That was something that was important to all of us,” said Pierce. “I’ve been there almost 30 years. I spent most of my career in that building. It was very difficult to say goodbye.”

As a piece of nostalgia, “he nailed it,” she said. “And the form is beautiful.”

From the main entrance on Montgomery Avenue, Lockersphere can be seen at the end of a long hallway, looking like a floating globe, suspended by a single rod with a safety cable inside.

“In a public space like this I love how simple it looks,” said Gard, who was visiting with his 7-year-old son, Lucas. “Lucas and his friends can look at it and like it because it’s a ball. It’s not so conceptual that you look at it and get spooked by it.”

The project was funded by donations from the graduating classes of 2010 through 2013, said Hughes, who estimated the total cost at $10,000 to $20,000, which included a deep discount from Gard and the cost of several engineering studies to ensure the sculpture could be safely installed and even withstand an earthquake without falling.

Gard said he finally brought the sculpture to the school in six pieces in May so students could see it and ask him questions. The school needed to be empty for the installation, which took place last Thursday with the help of a chain hoist and scissors lift.

Gard, who said he usually works alone, needed two assistants, once of whom was his father. “He loves this kind of thing,” said Gard.

Although 700 pounds of metal sounds like a lot, Gard pointed out that many hanging sculptures weigh thousands of pounds. “This could have weighed 2,000 pounds and it would be fine,” he said.

Before he created the metalwork, Gard photographed each locker number to post online so people can see if their old lockers are part of the sphere. He wants to hear their stories: The mad dashes to lockers between classes, the birthday decorations, the pictures inside of sweethearts.

Gard, however, doesn’t know if his old locker is in the sphere, confessing, “I can’t remember the number.”