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Scuttle

July 23, 2018

 

 

 

As readers may recall, In 2012 I suffered a hand injury while working on a large outdoor sculpture. It wasn’t so bad I couldn’t do anything but the pain made working with wood and metal difficult and joyless. The injury became the catalyst for a shift in my practice: I steered my process towards one that embraced the ephemeral and consisted of actions or interventions in the landscape that I recorded with my camera. Although the hand has now healed and I am able to once again make objects, I began to question the need to do so. As a maker I have brought into being hundreds of sculptures, functional items, and building projects. Of the sculpture, about half has been sold or given away, and what remains, including a bevy of larger outdoor works, either sit in my yard or adorn my house, which has become my own private Merzbau. I have found homes for several large works, mostly loans to art parks, galleries or other public or semi-public spaces, but typically with no guarantee of security or maintenance. Moving and installing the larger work can take the better part of a day and I’m pretty good at moving these beasts, which weigh up to 500 pounds, but I get tired of dealing with these things on a repeated basis for little or no return.

 

Late in 2012 I had to yet again find a home for a piece—Steel Canoe— that I was actually pretty fond of but in terms of maintenance was difficult. It had been damaged at its last installation and was badly in need of refinishing. It was really an excellent piece that had been featured in several shows and cover photos and I thought someone would have bought it, but, for whatever reason, it never sold. I was living in an apartment at the time and had no yard of my own. So, embracing my new direction, I decided to turn it into a performance I titled: Scuttle.

 

Scuttle is word that typically refers to deliberate sinking of a vessel, usually in retreat, as in battle, and sometimes used to block a waterway. The deliberateness of the act is a way to reclaim power in a losing situation; rather than have your ship sunk, you sink it yourself in a controlled manner, with an option to reclaim it later.

 

I felt like I needed to retreat from this onslaught of heavy objects of my own making and to take control. With the help of my good friend Daniel and his sons, I floated Steel Canoe for one last time out into the icy November waters of Cayuga Lake (In a conceptual twist on the relationship between functional objects and art, it was a sculpture but also a fully functional, albeit, very heavy boat) and there, not far from shore, we sank it, with the cameras rolling.

 

The plan was simple but as things go when working in nature, there are elements you can’t control. First, It was seemed like it was opening day of some fishing season and boats were trolling back and forth incessantly. We wanted to be inconspicuous as a possible, but on the lake there are no bushes to hide behind so we had to wait and wait and wait and then work quickly. Second, sinking a vessel is a violent affair: at first the boat resisted my efforts to subdue it (I drilled holes in the bottom) and it needed a forceful assist; then, once the waters took hold, it rapidly succumbed to the deep with a final belching of trapped air that made it seem as it’s life was extinguished. It was all very violent. In the chaos, documentation was not what it should have been. The last part of the plan was sinking it in not so deep water where I typically swim so that I would see it resting peacefully on the bottom from time to time. This was the part of the action that included the possibility of retrieval; perhaps in a few years the zebra mussel-encrusted hull would take on new meaning and I could pull it out to display it anew. Yet, since that day, despite several attempts, I have never found it. It is lost to the mystery of the lake (or perhaps salvaged by some fisherman who saw it on his sonar).

 

I have stopped thinking about Steel Canoe and have even made more heavy sculptures since then, but recently I have been forced again to a full retreat from making big things. After 32 years of maintaining a fully functional studio/ workspace I am forced out of my current shop. The building will be razed to make way for a new medical center, leaving in its wake several small businesses scrambling. As I balance the financial burden of maintaining a shop with my needs as an artist, I realize that the schedule of work projects I do to make money so I can pay for the shop leaves me little time to make art. In this paradigm, the practice of making things becomes self-defeating; all of the effort to maintain the tools and workspace and to pay rent and overhead saps all of my creative energy needed to make artwork.

 

For now, most of the equipment is going into a storage unit. I will work small and ephemeral, draw and paint, and maybe do clay figure studies. I will get back to that creative space where the time and energy spent on preparing to create, doesn’t overwhelm the creative act. I am going to embrace this new period in my career and make the best of it. I am scuttling the shop but this time I won’t lose the key.

        

           

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2 Comments
  1. This is great writing, Rob. Very poignant. I’m honored to be a part of your work. I have great faith in your new direction, friend.

  2. Andy Moerlein permalink

    Sweet document on life progressing.

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