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Steel Deal

Eyewitness: James Irving Westermann



James Irving Westermann apologizes that there isn’t much to look at in his Morrisville workshop. He’s just shipped off the last of the steel sculptures he made this summer: three to Burlington for the South End Art Hop’s outdoor juried show, and one to Woodstock for Sculpturefest 2010. What remains — walls covered in tools and bicycle parts, a wonderland of reclaimed steel in the woods out back — is unremarkable to the 26-year-old artist and electrician.

“When I want to make something, I just come out here and look,” he says, heading up a trail into the woods.

If these heaps of metal and junk were in the front yard, it would just look like a trashy lawn. But back here on the trails, they’re organized enough to look intentional, as if arranged by someone who knows what he’s doing — a welder, if not a sorcerer. Walk down one path and you’ll see piles of Barre granite, including a smooth, white grave marker. Turn a corner to find barricades of worn snowmaking pipes from Stowe, stacks of old shovels, bicycle wheels, car tires, glass insulators, springs and hinges.

Westermann, who uses almost entirely reclaimed or reused materials for his sculptures, knows exactly where to find things in these woods. He climbs up on something rusty and, with the toe of his sneaker, rummages through mysterious metal objects. This is where Westermann comes for inspiration.

In one section of the woods, behind a garden bursting with sunflowers, a scarecrow made of coffee cans and a swooping steel sculpture he named “Speculation,” Westermann has a collection of propane tanks, the rounded ends of which he welds together to create models for his spherical pieces. Elsewhere in the woods, he has a stack of mutant bicycles — one with a snowboard in place of its wheels, another with a scooter base where the seat once was.

Bikes are big with Westermann. One of his Art Hop sculptures, called “Trike,” is a massive red chopper parked outside Lawrence Ribbecke Studios on Pine Street. Its spiky back wheels, formerly part of his woodland junkyard, were the inspiration for the piece. This bike isn’t functional, but it does have a nice big seat, inviting for a kid to climb on.

As a kid himself, growing up in Morrisville, Westermann was always working on something.

“I’ve been building forever,” he says. “It starts with Legos, and the toys just get bigger as you grow up, [and] more expensive.”

He started breaking apart bikes and putting them back together while he was still in high school. That was after he learned some basic welding at his very first job — with a blacksmith — and got a brief tutorial from the guys at the local welding-supply store.

“I liked chopping things up, making them look funny and then ending up with something unique,” Westermann says.

He still does.

Back in his workshop, Westermann rolls out his MIG welder for a demonstration. After high school, he trained at a welding school in Schenectady and is now certified. He can only find one mask amid the clutter, so he does a really quick weld, looking away while the sparks fly. The oddly delicious smell of gas and melting steel wafts through the workshop. You can get a terrible “sunburn” from the UV rays if you’re not covered up, he explains. Twice he’s gotten flash burn in his eyes from not wearing a mask.

“It feels like you have sand in your eyes,” Westermann says. “You wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t see. You open your eyes and it just feels like buckets of water are coming out.”

It’s an intense way to make art, but Westermann loves working with steel. And, of course, it’s all about the tools.

“I like gear,” he admits with a grin. “I’m a tool junkie. I can’t stop buying them. So, part of it is just, Ooh, if I build that I’ll have to buy that new tool!

Westermann fantasizes about someday buying an engine-driven welder, so he can work on site, building his massive structures out in a field, or on the side of the road in Burlington. One of the biggest hurdles he’s encountered, as his sculptures have become bigger and heavier, is moving them. This summer his truck and trailer hit maximum capacity transporting a 2200-pound sculpture. But he’s still thinking bigger.

The last thing Westermann wants is to be pigeonholed, making the same kind of sculpture again and again. He’s found some success with his spheres, which look like something out of a Tim Burton movie: rusted gears, bolts, wrenches, and other bits and bobs welded together like steel lace into a perfect, hollow sphere. But he’s starting to get tired of filling requests for them.

“If I have to do the same piece over and over, I’m just going to overcharge until people stop wanting them,” he says. “If I keep doing them out of bicycle gears I’ll go crazy.”

Trying to make a sphere out of silverware could be cool, he says, though he’s not sure where he’d dig up a thousand forks, knives and spoons.

No matter. When it comes to creating new sculptures, what excites Westermann most is simple: “The next one,” he says. “Whatever that is.”

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