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Interview with Surface China Magazine

published in China (print and web) February 2013 - original article, in Chinese is here. Below is the unedited interview as it was conducted in English

1. Do you mind introducing the background of your creation? When did you start to create steel sculpture?

I have drawn and built things since I was a child, and always had ambitious projects, such as building a roller coaster out of wood in our backyard or tunneling under a storage shed. As a young man, I was trained in classical methods of drawing and painting, which is a great background for an artist working in any medium. But by my mid 20's (I am 43 years old now) I was more and more interested in working in three dimensions. I had the feeling that a painting is always representing something else, but a sculpture is truly it's own object. I also found it to more fun to sculpt, especially using found objects, and I have always believed that it is important to honor one's sense of playfulness, even when undertaking very serious endeavors. Currently, I feel that making found-object sculpture is the perfect medium for me – it enables me to express parts of my personality that might not be socially acceptable in other areas of life: I get to break things, put them together in ways that their manufacturer never intended, and say things with my art that might be inappropriate to say any other way.

 

2. What is the source of your inspiration? And, how do you choose your topic?

Inspiration is found in many parts of life, both positive and negative. I am inspired by forms in nature, such as the repetitive symmetry of bones or the awkward angles of a goat's body. We also live in a time of massive industrial production and corporate power, and we are causing great harm to the environment and our planet's natural systems in the pursuit of money and possessions. As a found-object artist, this industrial world allows me an incredible variety of materials to work with – we have produced more objects in the last few decades than all of previous human history combined. But this wealth of goods will kill us if we are not careful in how we proceed. A part of my work also attempts to address the delicate balance between humans and nature; using ugly industrial remnants to create a beautiful animal is one example. Another example would be my series of mechanized angler fish (not pictured in this article, but similar in style to the swordfish) – the idea is that as we pollute our oceans in the pursuit of profits, it would be ironic and funny if a fish used our industrial waste to evolve into a new kind of creature which used money as bait to prey on us, something which used our greedy tendencies against us in their own defense. I call them “GreedEaters”. Here is an example of what I'm talking about.
Topics and concepts for the sculptures are very important to me. I want to make art that is both beautiful to look at on a surface level, but which also has deeper layers of meanings. For example, my sculpture “Factotum” (not pictured in article) is about people being trapped doing meaningless and repetitive labor in a complex industrial society. I show this idea visually by building a nonsensical looking machine out of gears, belts and drive shafts and place tiny human worker figures inside the gears, so that they are walking in an endless circle but also powering the machine that enslaves them. It is mostly made from old sewing machine parts – machines which are used in sweatshops (meaningless and repetitive work) in developing nations to make the clothing that citizens of wealthier nations wear to their jobs. I love the inherent contradiction in that – making a sculpture out of the thing that it is about, and think it speaks to the truth that we make our own prisons in some of our attempts have control and freedom.
I seek topics that provide me a fun and powerful visual impression, but which may have darker or humorous meanings upon further consideration. Even a subject as natural and simple as a Great Blue Heron can have layers of meaning beyond the obvious: I recently built a 16 foot tall (5 meter) sculpture of a Heron that is permanently installed on a busy street corner at the University of Oregon in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon. I built it with found objects and welded steel, but I focused my search for found objects on things used for human transportation. My idea was that if a Heron is a hunting animal that normally stands in a river, I could suggest that this very large heron was standing along the edge of a “river of human traffic”, with all the bicycles, cars and pedestrians passing by every day. I hoped that by using parts of bicycles, motorcycle sprockets, car gears, and even old trolley tracks from the street below, I could suggest that the Heron was hunting and nurturing itself from the human traffic below. By making the heron large enough to hunt and eat humans or their bicycles, I hoped to give people passing by a moment to reconsider the relationship between humans and nature, and that we might not always be at the top of of food chain, in control of all the other parts of the natural world. I also wanted to emphasize that the Heron is an animal that hunts. People are not usually afraid of herons, but if we were the size of a frog, a heron would be a terrifying predator. I emphasized this idea by using two decommissioned rifles as the beak of the heron, and tilted it's head downwards, so that from some places on the sidewalk below, the heron appears to be aiming two guns at pedestrians. People who are viewing the Great Blue Heron sculpture may or may not even notice some of these details or meanings, and simply be content noticing a large blue bird on the street corner, and that's OK. But I always want to make artwork which has these deeper levels of meaning available to people want to ponder such things. I want to make art which appeals to both the dumbest guy in the room and the genius at the same time!

3. Usually, which steps do you follow to create art works? On average, how much time do you spend on each work?

My creativity in the studio often begins with an act of destruction, and since I am a person who embraces contradictions, this is a perfect balance of opposites: “To create, I must first destroy.” In a literal sense, this means that I take an object such as an old sewing machine (which may still work perfectly well) and tear it apart in order to get certain parts out that I want to use in a sculpture. Sewing machines are packed full of interesting mechanical parts, but I only use some of what I find in there, and the rest of the now-destroyed sewing machine goes into the recycled metal bin. I have an array of tools that allow me to take apart or cut open any type of object or material I may encounter. Once I have taken things apart and collected the objects I will use as ingredients of for the new sculpture, the assembly process begins. My primary tools for fabrication are welders (gas and arc welding are both used extensively), hardware such as screws and bolts and adhesives such as epoxies and glues. The objects I am putting together to make a new sculpture are often unrelated, and may not go together easily. For example, steel is extremely difficult to weld to aluminum, so joining two different objects made of such different materials can require innovative techniques. I also try to “hide my tracks” in the assemblage process – welds are made in the least visible places to reinforce the appearance that these unrelated items came together effortlessly, on their own.
The amount of time each work can take varies a great deal depending on size and complexity; the Mammoth skeleton took 350 hours, but that includes having to disassemble it at my studio and re-assemble it in the Museum where it is permanently displayed (Moses Lake, Washington Museum of Art and Natural History.) Something smaller, such as a goat made from motorcycle parts takes between 40 and 50 hours. It is important when I am working that I be unafraid of cutting off part of the sculpture and starting over again if it doesn't look just right. I was taught early on not to be “precious” about your own work, in order to be unafraid to edit out the parts that aren't up to your standards or potential.

 

4. Is there any impressive things happened during the work?

I think one of the most impressive things I observe in doing this kind of art is the human capacity for “simulacrum” - that's when we look at something and are able to see an image in it, whether it's making smears of paint on canvas appear to be a recognizable portrait, or simply looking at a cloud and imagining that you see a dog. We all have that capacity and do it all the time. My work draws that process out by taking hard industrial forms and rearranging them in new ways that suggest completely different forms such as familiar animals. Warm, life-like forms suddenly emerge from what is actually a pile of cold, hard steel trash. My work depends on my ability to look at piles of scrap steel, and pull out the items which remind me of other things and inspire me to want to bring a vague notion to it's fullest realization. My work also depends on viewers having that same ability, which thankfully, is universal.

 

5. At least, how much time do you spend on creation for each day?

I aim for 10-12 hour shifts in the studio, at minimum, and usually do one 20-24 hour shift each week. This type of art work can be very labor intensive; finding the objects, dismantling them and having a large inventory available and organized is an ongoing chore, in addition to the art-making itself. There are also a lot of peripheral tasks, such as handling shipping and building crates, coordination of gallery show schedules and email/networking with fans and collectors. I average 60-80 hours per week, but I truly love what I do. It is a great deal of work, but I manage to have a tremendous amount of fun doing it.

 

6.Can you make profit and keep your studio by your creation? Compared with your initial idea, how different is the current status of your studio?

Yes, I am very lucky to be able to support myself and maintain my studio by creating and selling my sculptures. I have a very supportive wife and family who also help make this life possible. I feel particularly lucky that I am able to continually make work that is interesting and engaging to me, without having to worry if people will like it or buy it – they do! When I have made sculptures in the past and was mainly concerned with quick sales, it showed in the resulting work – they were some of my worst pieces ever. But when I focus on having fun, and follow the visual elements that are most interesting and exciting to me, and forget about the marketplace, it also shows in the resulting works, and these are my most successful pieces. And people can see that in the work, even if they don't know why it is that they are drawn to a piece or repelled by another. Visual language exists at a level beneath words, and we all are very fluent in it.

 

7.What was the biggest difficulty you have met?

The biggest difficulty for me as an artist is time. The work I make is labor intensive, and there just isn't nearly enough time available to make all of the art I want to make. I have many, many ideas for future sculptures, and nearly every time I make something, it generates more ideas for things I'd like to make. I write these ideas on slips of paper, and have a big box full of them. So now, the challenge as an artist becomes having the judgement to know which ideas are truly worth the time, energy and materials cost, and which are best left as ideas written on paper. Not all ideas I have are equal, and I am slowly becoming a better judge of my own creative impulses. But we all have the same number of hours available to us in a day, and we all face challenges of time management in a busy world. The crucial skill is having the self- discipline to put in the work and time into the things that one feels are truly important and valuable and to ignore the distractions and meaningless baubles along the way. For me, the work in the studio is something I enjoy very much, but it is very solitary and takes away many hours that I might otherwise spend with family and friends. I am very aware of this trade-off and it helps me to use my time in the studio wisely, and to appreciate the time away from the studio as well.

 

8. What is your greatest achievement from your creation, and what delights you most?

While the art-making process is very solitary and can feel lonely at times, it is joyful to share the resulting work with others. The best achievement I can hope for is to inspire another person to have the confidence to try something creative that they otherwise might not try. I have a very strong work ethic and a high standard for my own work, and people can observe this. I regularly hear from people who have been inspired by my work and the feeling I get is much greater than the happiness I feel when I sell the work. Inspiring others feels spiritual in a way that selling artwork does not.
With visual arts, there is no “live performance” aspect the same way that there is with music or acting. In a gallery setting, I can observe people viewing my work and they may not realize I am the artist, so I am able to observe very honest reactions - I love seeing that, even if the reaction is not positive. But usually people respond very well to my work, and part of the reason is that I use found-objects, which most people can relate to and feel connected to. One of the things I love about found-object art is that it brings art to a section of people that might not otherwise think of themselves as art appreciators, or who may feel that they don't understand contemporary art. They are able to recognize common objects that they don't normally think of as art materials and see an alternative use for those everyday items and they feel a connection to the sculpture. Part of what I do in my work is remove the functionality from an object in order to emphasize or alter it's visual form, and I think this gives people a chance to consider a common object in a way they may not have. Suddenly a hammer that is no longer able to pound a nail becomes the shoulder of a goat, and the viewer notices the lines of the hammer head in a way they never had, because now it looks like part of an animal.
I also take great pleasure in sharing the process and teaching people how to work with the tools used for metal sculpture. There are so many great tools available, but which are primarily used for industry commercial construction, not for individual creative pursuits. I want people to know about those options, and not be afraid to learn to use a potentially scary or dangerous machine. I love the DIY (do it yourself) culture that the internet has spawned and the availability of information. I often have studio visitors, speak to classes, and give interviews such as this in order to promote understanding and participation in art, whether one is a maker or a viewer. I strongly believe that art belongs to everyone and is not just for the wealthy and intellectual. Art can be fun and invigorating, creativity breeds happiness and understanding, and it is my part of my job as an artist to help spread that message!

 

9. Which artist's studio would you like best to visit in all over the world?

I don't have a dream of visiting any particular artist's studio, but am fascinated by creative workspaces in general. I do admire the studio practices of certain artists: Tom Sachs is a sculptor in New York City who has made an entire art form out of good shop practices, such as being organized, clean and careful. He uses assistants in his work, so a part of these practices are to train the assistants, but they are good concepts anyone can employ and he shares them on his website as videos that are both funny and useful.
I try to visit any artists studio that I can, because it's always interesting to see how others organize their spaces and nurture their creative processes. Depending on the medium, studios can look so many different ways. My own studio tends to be dirty if I don't keep up with cleaning tasks – cutting steel and welding metals is a messy, hot and sometimes violent process. Plus, I have to keep a large amount of found object materials available to have many choices to work with when sculpting. Keeping a tidy work space is an ongoing task.

 

10. If there is an opportunity, which artist would you like to cooperate with? and why?

Again, there is no particular artist I am eager to work with, and I tend to avoid collaborative projects. The reason is that I already struggle to keep up with all of the ideas and goals that I already have, and it's hard to imagine how to honor those needs, and simultaneously honor the input of another artist in a joint creative output. For me, art-making is a solo endeavor and a large part of how I learn about who I am. But I also recognize the potential value in collaboration and certainly have done so at times, mostly out of necessity. For example, the Great Blue Heron I discussed earlier has incredible glass eyes that seem to follow you as you move down the street. I don't make glass work or know how, but Eugene is full of skilled glass artists. I called one of the best, Dave Popawitz, and hired him to make eyes according to my specifications. But that seems more like sub-contracting and not true, equal cooperation towards a mutual goal.