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Montpelier's SculptCycle Shifts into High Gear

State of the Arts


"Gear Sphere," by James Irving-Westerman
  • "Gear Sphere," by James Irving-Westerman

James Irving-Westerman is a licensed electrician and certified welder. He can fix most anything, but in his off hours, he finds another use for his skills.

When Irving-Westerman, 24, removes his electrician’s tool belt for the night, he becomes a sculptor, fashioning abstract shapes from castoff metal. His specialty has been the manipulation of industrial-grade piping into poetic forms — a “Holey Trinity” of three elaborately cut standing cylinders and an “Aloe,” composed of thinly cut lengths of piping that resemble the leaves of that succulent.

The self-taught Morrisville native’s latest sculptural trick, however, is additive, not subtractive. Irving-Westerman has been making a series of spheres in which he welds together bicycle gears and sprockets to form a kind of metal exoskeleton.

His “Gears Sphere,” on view in this year’s outdoor SculptCycle exhibit in downtown Montpelier, sold for $800 within a few hours of being installed, and the artist has two additional orders in hand.

Each orb is about 3 feet in diameter and looks logistically impossible to make. How do you fashion a perfect sphere from a bunch of junk?

“The trick to putting them together is to have a form,” Irving-Westerman says, as he describes how each half-sphere is shaped against the bottom of a 250-gallon propane tank. “You build each half on the form and then put it together.”

The hardest part is assembling the round sprockets and gears into a random pattern before he starts welding them together. A single sphere is made up of 200 individual pieces that vary in diameter from 2 to 6 inches; Irving-Westerman sorts them by size.

“Once you start welding, it’s easy,” he says.

Irving-Westerman likes to use other recycled materials, including glass, wood, stone and metal, which partially accounts for the variety of forms his sculptures take. He says he doesn’t have a set style, because each sculpture is derived from his reimagining of the materials at hand.

In this regard, Irving-Westerman is a perfect fit for Sculptcycle 2009. All 19 of the artists whose works are exhibited in front of, and sometimes inside, buildings around town this year — Delia Robinson, Axel Stohlberg, Arnold Angelo and Patrick Purcell, to name a few — seem to have a similar guiding rationale: Why buy new materials when there is so much free refuse at hand? And why not remind people that bikes are a carbon-free alternative to cars?

That pretty much sums up the mission of SculptCycle, which is as much about giving tourists and locals something fun to look at as it is about supporting local artists and encouraging people to think about their environmental footprint.

Last year, this odd combination of goals seemed to get results. Not only did old bike bits get a new lease on life, but local businesses sponsored $500 stipends for artists to create the sculptures, and the buzz kept going through the summer. There’s a slightly different formula this year: The stipends are $250, and artists get 80 percent of the proceeds from sales while the Montpelier Downtown Community Association gets 20 percent. (Those percentages were reversed last year.)

“We have the same goals and purposes,” says Rob Hitzig, founder of the SculptCycle project and co-owner of The Lazy Pear Gallery in Montpelier. “We want to increase awareness of public art in the community and make people aware of biking as a carbon-free mode of transportation.”

If the response to Irving-Westerman’s sculpture is any indication, SculptCycle promises to turn more heads — even nongearheads — than it did last year.