Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From scrap to sculpture

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) -- "Look at these," Erik Beerbower says, awe in his voice. "Aren't they beautiful?"
Some might see the objects of his admiration as a heap of junk. Not Beerbower.
The metal sculptor views the pile of discarded automotive torque converters and gears as a treasure trove of art material.
"Torque converters are beautiful because of their intricacies," he says. "You look at them as a machine part. But when I am done with them, they are a flower."
Beerbower shops for supplies not in a craft or art shop or a home improvement store, but at the D.H. Griffin Wrecking Co. scrapyard.
Other local metal and "found object" artists shop there, too: Lawrence Feir. Trace O'Connor. Carolyn Owen. Lois and Ernie Rich. Frank Russell. John Martin. Occasionally, Andrew Comstock, James Quinn and Jim Gallucci.
At the scrapyard, they find weathered or clean, funky, character-loaded materials at a fraction of the cost of new. They can pass that savings on to customers who buy their art.
"I like to think that we give these materials a second life," Beerbower says, loading $20 worth of car parts, steel circles, and a child's bike into his red pickup truck.
"We transform them in a way that people feel it is worthy to put on their walls."
Drive into D.H. Griffin's 40-acre scrapyard on Hilltop Road, and art isn't the first image to come to mind.
The company buys truckloads of scrap metals, old equipment, demolition and construction refuse, paper and plastic for recycling. It was the primary contractor on cleanup of the World Trade Center ruins after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Last year's Cash for Clunkers program brought in tons of old cars, a bonus to Beerbower, who converted parts to art.
At its entrance, a stream of trucks waits in line for their contents to be weighed and unloaded and drivers paid.
Towering, noisy, beeping machines called material handlers roam the back of the yard like lumbering dinosaurs, moving metal scrap into mountainous piles. Large shears cut it into pieces.
Workers sort, process and size steel, copper, brass and aluminum. The majority is sold to mills that melt it and sell it for reuse, yard supervisor Kent Baltzer said. But the company also lets artists and others buy reusable metal and wood items through its yard sales department.
Along with recycling, D.H. Griffin preaches safety. Managers allow only experienced visitors into back sections.
"We have a good safety record, but it wouldn't take a lot to mess it up," Baltzer said. "We don't want them on piles, or around equipment."
Artists respect Griffin's staff and rules. They don't want the yard closed to them.
"If you are in flip-flops and garden gloves, they are not going to let you out there," says Trace O'Connor of Durham, who works out of Greensboro's Lyndon Street Artworks.
Once they learn the system, they come away impressed.
"It's clean, and everything is organized," Lois Rich says. "When you are looking for a specific type of metal, they know whether they have it or not."
Scrap there can end up as art that is utilitarian, funky -- or both.
Andrew Comstock's best score: brushed steel furniture legs in new condition. He bought a truckload for $20 to $30 and made several pieces of furniture.
On the funky side: O'Connor built a sculpture 32 feet long, titled "Iscariot," from light poles, electrical conduit, steel plate and mechanical tubing.
It won first place in the 2009 Rosen Outdoor Sculpture Competition & Exhibition at Appalachian State University and soon will go on display at Boston Harbor.
Several pieces created from Griffin scrapyard metal can be found around town.
Beerbower's "Greensboro" sign atop the Planet Earth globe at Elm and Lee streets.
Lawrence Feir's skeletal fish decorating the wall outside Fishbones restaurant at Elam and Walker avenues. His light pole, lantern and bench bases across the street.
Frank Russell will turn brass, copper and aluminum from Griffin into 25 small pieces of art. Brass trays will become celestial bodies and Cone Mills signs will become miniature houses as part of a sculpture for the Downtown Greenway.
Lois and Ernie Rich incorporated material from Griffin into their Organic Musicians sculpture, to be installed in Gateway Gardens.
"I love to go out there," Lois Rich says about the scrapyard. "You see the most outrageous things."
Summerfield sculptor Carolyn Owen learned to shop safely in the traditionally male domain of scrapyards in the 1980s, when she studied at UNCG under Jim Gallucci.
Gallucci took classes to the Myers Brothers yard on Spring Garden Street, a popular haunt of metal sculptors before it closed about seven years ago.
Although Owen also gets metal from friends and roadsides, D.H. Griffin remains a regular stop.
"If you are a found object artist and can't figure out what to do, a trip to the scrapyard will usually unblock you, get the creative juices flowing," Owen says.
Gallucci buys new materials elsewhere for large commissioned projects. But he, too, visits D.H. Griffin for inspiration.
"It's a great place to see what was done at one time," Gallucci says. "They are places of history, of ideas, of thrown-away ideas."
Lawrence Feir has a shopping list of sorts for this visit to D.H. Griffin.
"You drag everything home, and it will be like 'Sanford and Son,' " he says, referring to the TV sitcom about a junk dealer.
Today, he wants rebar -- steel reinforcing bar used in concrete and masonry structures -- from the 1920s to make bases for his wood-topped wine bars.
"The stuff from the 1920s is much more organic-looking," Feir says.
He also seeks parts of torque converters, small pieces that he will weld together into lamp shades and artfully shaped female forms.
"Invariably, I see something, and it spawns a new idea," he says.
Feir visits at lunchtime, when machines are still. He winds his white pickup truck down dirt roads to back stacks of metal and wears a red jacket so that workers can see him.
Feir doesn't find the pieces of torque converters. But he picks up a few circles of steel, likely remnants or "drops" from plasma-, water jet- or laser-cutting. They will become bases for larger sculpture.
He lays out other rusted pieces in the shape of a skeleton. But he abandons the idea for other steel remnants.
"Do you see this being a pelvis, in an abstract sort of way?" he asks, holding up a piece.
He buys several and a large ball of rebar, spending "more than $100 and less than $500," he says.
A week later, Feir has turned steel remnants into a life-size lawman complete with badge and a 25-inch running figure.
Back in his Lyndon Street Artworks studio, Beerbower is ready to turn the torque converters and gears into art.
"I look at these objects, and they tell me what they want to become," he says.
He had turned past batches of gears into popular "gear clouds" that he mounts on walls. But he has run out of wall space at Lyndon Street and his show at The Green Bean coffee house in downtown Greensboro.
These materials tell Beerbower something different. He will transform them into yard art: large, tall sunflowers, standing on a steel base.
"These are machine parts, and you are turning them into an organic flower," he says. "I think people like that tension."
His art is also a business. He knows what customers will pay and wants to keep materials, time and effort within budget.
"I like to get $125 to $200 for flowers, so I want to stay within 45 minutes to build one of these," Beerbower says.
For main stems, he will use 5/8-inch steel rod bought on a prior scrapyard visit. He bends three pieces on a hydraulic press and welds each to the base.
He welds a section of three torque converters atop each rod. He cuts three gears into quarters to make stem offshoots, then welds smaller gears onto them.
"I am trying to evoke a flower, not get so literal with it," he says.
Forty-five minutes later, one-time scrap has become sculpture.

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