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Animal Magnetism



Published May 18, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

What do horses, fish and birds have in common with Don Quixote? No, it's not a riddle. But it's a trick question, because unless you were standing in the Burlington studio of sculptor Bill Heise, you'd never guess the answer: metal. More to the point, pieces of steel and iron that served other functions before their new incarnations as art.

Heise's metal menagerie -- which also includes roosters and "Vermont bullcows" -- shares space in his cluttered workspace with a series of mask-like, Southwest-inspired "spirit-keepers" and a 7-foot-tall version of Cervantes' hapless hero. Most of the works are freestanding; some are designed to hang. Then there are the relatively practical, if quirky, constructions such as candleholders and squat cocktail tables.

Heise's latest design, conceived while wintering at the home he built in Honduras, is a birdbath that straddles fantasy and function: A round disc of steel forms a sturdy base; the multi-leaved stem was inspired by tropical plants; and the shallow basin comes with a large-plumed, long-legged bird attached. Whether this creature will attract or frighten New England's native avian species remains to be seen. But the human appeal of these sculptures is evident -- Burlington's Frog Hollow gallery is featuring them in its front window next month, just in time for gardening season.

The Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow has carried Heise's work for, he guesses, some 30 years. His graceful birds -- cranes, egrets, herons, sandpipers -- are still popular, according to Burlington gallery assistant Hannah Haupt. So are the Vermont bulls and Heise's most minimal creation: a bicycle and rider in simple outline, about a foot long. "We see those fly out the door," Haupt says. Also standing sentinel at the gallery is another Don Quixote.

Some of the sculptures in Heise's studio are decades old -- pieces he can't bear to part with. Now 63, he began crafting critters from junkyard detritus long before the use of recycled materials became trendy. In fact, back in 1966, he was one of the trendsetters. Heise is grateful for his timing: He supported three kids on an income from making art. "I couldn't do that now," he points out. "When I started, only a few people on the East Coast were doing art from found objects. Now that's really exploded. It's partly my fault."

The downside, he suggests, is that found objects are, well, getting harder to find -- though that may be good news for America's landfills. Mean-while, the cost of new steel has risen dramatically. Another challenge: the inevitable competition in the marketplace, including from cheaper production-line items made, ironically, to resemble recycled constructions. Not the first time commerce imitated art.

But there's no substitution for Heise's design skills, imagination and whimsy -- not to be confused with "cute," which his works are not. Plus, Heise employs an economy of line that Picasso might envy. "With two or three pieces, he can come up with something that to us conveys so much personality, humor and character," says Karen Farber, a Westford-based marketing consultant. She and her husband Don own about a dozen Heise sculptures, she says, and have purchased at least twice that many more as gifts. "They're like little friends," Farber says of the figures -- mostly animals -- that populate her home, indoors and out. These include five fish, a camel, a stork, a pair of roosters, an archer and a galloping horse.

Farber's favorite, though, is still her first Heise purchase: three elephants that "appear to be walking in a line," she explains. "They're standing on a blade from a very big saw that would have been used to cut down something large, like a tree." The work is a subtle statement "about vanishing wilderness," Farber believes.

The sculptor himself makes no claims about eco-politics. If turning the stuff of human industry into representations of less wasteful creatures conveys a message, he doesn't talk about that, either. Perhaps his re-use aesthetic speaks for itself; perhaps he just likes animals. Either way, his concerns are about making art.

In fact, Heise is more artist than artisan. "I'm not a good craftsman," he claims. "I'm too impatient to go onto the next thing." And he's not a big fan of equipment; his primary tools are his hands and an arc welder: "It's an old one I bought from a farmer," he says. "I can work more spontaneously with it; I can be superaggressive." The resulting rough-hewn seams contribute to the sculptures' spontaneous feel. So does the inevitable, and intentional, rust. But the works are hardly flimsy. "This stuff is virtually indestructible," Heise says, "and if it does break, everything can be fixed."

Like most artists, this one draws inspiration from the natural world, but some of his works imagine the mythological or supernatural -- such as those he completed for a commission last year. Dan Cox, owner of Burlington's Coffee Enterprises, asked Heise to make five gigantic masks. More than six feet tall, the works are now hanging from -- or, more accurately, wrapped around -- some white pine trees on the grounds of Cox's Shelburne home. "We went to a noetic sciences conference and Dan got inspired somehow, something about Easter Island," says his wife, artist Casey Blanchard. "Guardian spirits, I think that's what he had in mind ... We had to get one of those cherrypicker things to put them up."

That was a large job for Heise, who says he now doesn't like to make anything he can't carry -- or that won't fit in the back of his ancient Toyota pickup. He's scaling back in other ways, too. Though his work is still carried at galleries around the country, and he and wife/business manager Carol attend 10 or so craft shows a year, Heise says sales have slowed since his heyday. At one time he had five production assistants; now he's content to work alone. He's rented a slice of his studio to another metal sculptor, and is moving into the apartment upstairs to cut costs.

But being close to the shop is just fine by him. "This is all I've done for 40 years; I've never had to wash dishes or anything," Heise says. "I could stop now and sit on my porch and drink rum, but I'd rather do the art -- it's more fun."