Where do all the artists hide? In their natural environment they thrive, but publicly they can be quite difficult to spot, as they tend toward being an introverted sort.
My friend Ennie and I found quite a few sculptures along the way to Albuquerque – and we jumped out of the car to take a look at just about every one we passed. However, I came to this place with the feeling that I’d love to learn and perhaps get my hands messy if I could. Seeing sculptures wasn’t enough, I wanted to meet the people who made them.
We were headed out for the day. Along the road was a funky welded horse sculpture that we’d missed the night before on our drive in. I turned into the driveway and we got out to get a close-up look, cameras in hand.
I’m working on becoming the sort of person who takes their time on the journey, and I’m thankful to have had a friend along who was excited to do the same.
This horse stood in front of a plaza where there was a small cafe, a gallery and a few other businesses. The Wild Hearts gallery has some phenomenal pieces inside. We wandered around for a bit and I grabbed a card to send back to my mother. Geri, the gallery manager, was excited to learn that I wanted to go hang out with and maybe get to work with some of the local artists.
Within a day of the visit, she’d messaged several local metal artists and had given me tips on where to find their work online. She said one of her favorites sculpted bike chains. I tried to wrap my head around what that could look like, but honestly I couldn’t imagine what was possible with such an odd material.
Ennie flew back home a few days later – and I worked, worked, worked – and looked in awe at the birdbath out the window as the desert drank and preened themselves.
And then Stephen emailed me.
His emails were thoughtful and warm. And it turned out that his space wasn’t too long of a drive from where we were staying. I called him up and planned a late-morning Saturday visit, so that he could get a bike ride in that morning. Bike chains. Huh.
Steven’s work was not in the gallery. He didn’t have a web site. He was an artist that may have suffered more through the pandemic were it not for the fact that he was retired psychologist and he had let his roots in Placitas run deep.
Stephen built his studio with his own two hands and built it well. He was an excellent craftsman and admirably, self-taught. I drove the gravel roads that day, in my tiny little car that had no business being in the mountains or desert, to a little oasis that simply felt magical. The yard, in the middle of the hilly desert terrain, was a lush garden of flowering trees and succulent plants. Interspersed among the plants were bright colored glass totems, figures, metal torsos and lamps; evidence of an unending creative drive.
I wandered around the grounds with him and he told me stories about his work. First up were the lamps. I immediately noticed them, as a good friend of mine in Nashville had a similar fascination with geodesic shapes and had worked on a metal lamp with me. They were a little clunky and a little wild. The surfaces of each side were made of fused bicycle chains. The sculptures were motorized and would spin, they recharged by solar power, and some of them had colored glass incorporated into the sides.
I marveled at one of the torsos hanging in his garden. He said that always wanted to work with the human body, so his bike chain experimentation led him to figure out a new process. He created a plaster negative from mannequins and torso castings and delicately placed and tacked, placed and tacked, placed and tacked sections of bike chains along the interior of it until the piece suited him.
The glass work wasn’t his. His partner was equally phenomenal. All of the glass work was hers. I didn’t get to meet Elaine, but I would gladly travel back just to hear her talk about all of the bright, whimsical glasswork she’d made.
He showed me walls that he and Elaine had collaborated on, and my heart melted. He had taken heavy squared grating used to sort gravel (which there was PLENTY of in the desert) and built decorative walls in various places in his garden. His partner made hundreds of funky little glass tiles, all of which were hung inside of the individual squares. He drilled the holes in all the glass for her and wired the piece together.
My heart skipped a beat when he told me they’d worked together on it.
Finding someone in life who matches and compliments your energy, steals your heart, and helps you make something beautiful is a form of love that is rare and wonderful. Some couples get by never knowing or caring what the other is passionate about – but the ones I adore create together. I love watching my partnered friends who are artists go about life, whether they’re experimental filmmakers, mead makers, sculptors, or photographers. To be an artist in love with another artist means that your sensitive heart always has a source of inspiration. You’ve got a spirit alongside you who wants to find beauty and take time to celebrate or feel what others would just pass by.
I hope to meet Elaine soon.
We kept on the tour – he asked me if I’d like to see his workshop.
Now you have to understand, I have developed a thing for domes. The friend who had invited me on this journey to Albuquerque had convinced me five years prior, to build a planetarium. I had no idea what I was doing, but managed to wrangle together the local maker community and eek out a 20′ projection dome that barely worked. That experience led me down a path of collecting, building and learning about the dome community and how planetarium projection systems worked. (Someday I will write several lengthy posts about this – what you need to know at this point is that I love LOVE domes.)
And wouldn’t you know it. Stephen HAD A DOME.
Not only did he have a dome, his dome was his workshop. I’d seen a few of the torsos here and there in the yard – but MY GOODNESS – here were all his works in progress. On the workbench was the tiny little tool he used to disassemble the chain and the solvent he used to painstakingly clean it. Because of COVID, he really hadn’t made much work in the last year, and so his work sat waiting for him to find a tiny little spark of motivation. Gallery tours had stopped and dried up. People just weren’t wanting to spend on art, and there wasn’t much opportunity to get it out in front of folks unless he went online. His works aren’t done much justice online – you don’t get the sense of the form.
He talked about powder coating – how pricey it was, but how stunning the works turned out when he did. He had one of his torsos done in blue and it was magnificent.
His favorite figure – well, he calls “butt” erfly. (And to be fair, that torso indeed has a respectable derrière.) He has spent weeks of his life looking for mannequins that have dynamic gestures – and his searching has led him to the conclusion that a good torso is a very difficult and often expensive thing to find.
After awhile we head to his showroom. Here, his figures take on an entirely other form. He had been tinkering with brass and bronze and tin, melting down bits and bobs – shell casings and other random things he’d find on his adventures and pouring them over the bike moulds.
The effect was stunning. If this man has a masterwork, the torsos and castings of his face that have this second layer of melted elegance through it are absolutely it.
He continues to show me pieces in his gallery. He shows me the fixtures he’s designed to suspend his torsos away from the wall, and the spinning luminescent globes he’s created. He ticks on some spotlights and adjusts them, creating dazzling effects behind the works.
I ask about pricing, well knowing that I have no budget nor place to put a torso at the moment, and our discussion shifts. We talk about customers who ask how long it takes him to make a piece, as though they are trying to calculate an hourly rate. They want to see if his work is “worth it”.
When you are an artist, you aren’t an art factory. It turns out that there is a whole segment of folks who want to quantify a rate for a work that has taken a lifetime of experimentation, inspiration, work, and observation to produce. I feel really badly for what society has done to reduce individuals to thinking about the value of art in such cheap terms.
And he then tells me that regardless of what these sorts think, he’d never devalue his pieces by selling them cheaply. Since the pandemic started he hasn’t really been selling anything. He tells me his community has been hurting. Instead of taking in money to cover his labor and materials, he has decided that the food pantry down the hill could use the funds more than he. Once more I recognize that I am in the presence of a truly compassionate, wonderful human being. I would buy every piece he had if I had the means. And maybe someday I will. “But what can I do?” I think to myself – if he’s not in a position to promote himself at the moment, I’ll try my best and share his story so that maybe he can sell a few pieces.
What I really want to do is make him a few negatives. Commission some dancers and make him some forms so that he can build out even more spectacular shapes. Or maybe find a way to connect him with an arts group and a makerspace or someone who can collaborate with him to do this.
My mind just goes on like that sometimes. And I suspect that I may not be able to actually do that sort of work for him, but I love the thought exercise. When you see someone doing good, what can you do to help them along? If you aren’t in a position to buy the art, how can you help them on their path?
I left his studio humbled and in admiration, and thankful that my heart has been feeling awakened but happily introverted as of late.
Learn more about Stephen Feher’s work: