Weaving Experience Into Art

Earlier this year, the Cameron Art Museum offered two young Wilmington artists their first museum show. The result opens this Friday as part of the new exhibition Weave. WHQR's Megan Williams joined the artists earlier this summer, to follow the process of their creation...

Wilmington, NC – Supply shopping for Wilmington artists Dan Brawley and Dixon Stedler requires work gloves, wire cutters and an innocent smile.

The smile is for property owners who might not be pleased to see these artists popping out of one of his dumpsters. That kind of work, Brawley says, he usually leaves to his partner in crime. Dixon, he says, doesn't get caught. "When I jump into somebody's dumpster or go behind their building, rooting through their stuff, they come after me. If Dixon is there, they say, 'Oh, Shug, can I help?'"

Dixon agrees. She has quite a reputation for jumping into dumpsters.

Seated in the shuddering cab of their 65 Ford pickup, Brawley and Stedler are on the prowl, searching for the raw materials of their art - wires, cables, hoses, anything they can twist and weave into interesting forms. The materials they glean today are destined for the walls of the Cameron Art Museum. That finished product is a long way off, but as these two see it, the process of creation has already.

Their art, Brawley explains, is more about the process than the finished sculpture. "It's about the learning process," he says, "what happens to your hands and your mind and your body as you make art."

Both Stedler and Brawley have long paired their artistic impulses with the romance of cast-off objects. Brawley got his start exploring barns and tobacco warehouses around Durham. Stedler actually worked for a group that collects cast-off material. In the mills around Greensboro they'd find socks without toes and three-legged pantyhose. She was immediately hooked.

The first stop on this particular trip is on Eagle's Island: the vast scrap yard at Horton's Iron and Metal Company. Under the baking summer sun, Stedler and Brawley crunch through warehouses and between the skeletons of anonymous machinery. The air is heavy with rust, oil, and the invisible presence of the river. For these two, the looming piles of scrap are irresistible.

Stedler says she doesn't come here with a specific project in mind. Sometimes rusty tractor chains catch her eye. Or refrigerator cable. Since the Cameron exhibition will require them to cover a lot of area, the goal today is wire with the right flexibility, diameter, and weight to make for good weaving. Both Stedler and Brawley are soon finding spools and tangles of it everywhere, tugging and clipping to get it free, calling to each other to examine a particularly good find.

Scavenging has gotten tougher recently. The soaring price of copper means builders are now selling what they used to give away. It's forced Brawley and Stedler to buy more of their materials. But high prices are still a relative thing.

"It's still cheap compared to, if we were painters, and we were going and buying oil paint," he says. "This is still garbage. It's just expensive garbage."

The truck bed begins to fill with plastic-coated wire, spirals of silver tubing, and a rusty pump nozzle Brawley's become enchanted with. He's not sure how they'll use it though, maybe string a few together, like an industrial skeleton.

For Brawley, all this trash comes laden with meaning. As he sees it, working with cast-offs in his art actually connects him to American culture.

"If you take a broad view of what our culture produces, this is what we produce at the highest rate. If there's one thing we do well," he says, gesturing at towering walls of crushed cars and abandoned machines, "this is it."

The scrap yard closes at four. For the rest of the afternoon, Brawley and Stedler switch to hunter-gatherer mode.

They cruise through Wilmington following a mental map of promising dumpsters, remembered scrap heaps, and bemused construction crews. While wandering through an open industrial yard, they get accused of violating Homeland Security. Across town, they case the construction site for the new Police Headquarters, but decide on prudence. And the whole way, they reminisce about the great hauls - computer cords at the main library, elevator cables from Time Warner.

That was all earlier this summer. Fast forward now to this week, and find yourself in the Samuel Hughes wing of the Cameron Art Museum, which Stedler and Brawley have called home for the past few days. Really, they've brought in sleeping bags and are weaving their exhibition at all hours of the day, and night.

"This is a whole new definition of resident artist," Stedler groans, "stumbling to the bathroom to brush our teeth in the morning. Saying hello to the security guards."

It all seems a little wantonly bizarre, especially since Brawley and Stedler only live a few minutes away from the museum. But as he stands on a ladder, threading barbed-wire through a chandelier of cast-offs, Brawley argues the point isn't to behave in an 'arty' way, but to bring the creation of art, down to a daily level.

"It demystifies it in a way that is more straightforward," he says, "and it takes the mystery out of it that there's this genius and they go out into the wilderness and they wrought genius from the paint and all that crap, crap, crap. It's total crap."

The pieces Stedler and Brawley are weaving embody all these ideas - they're giant, bulbous, strange, and fun. They show off their scrap-pile origins and the endless labor of the artists' hands. They ask to be touched and bent, to keep the process of creation going. And they're mortal. The fate of this artwork was sealed on that first trip to Horton's iron and metal.

It was then that they made a deal with Terry Horton - all the materials they took for this project were free, on the condition that everything comes back in the end. As scrap.

Which is exactly how Brawley and Stedler want it. As Stedler explains it, "You can't make new art with old art sitting around. So we purge often. It's just art. It's alright to chuck it."

Stedler says she hopes in the end to persuade the crane operators to let her be the one to smash their towering sculpture. It will be the final step in their process.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

There are photos of Brawley and Stedler's trip to the junkyard, and of their installation at the Cameron, on WHQR's flickr site. (Please be merciful and remember that the good folks of WHQR are trained to work with sound and not, you know, cameras.)

Weave! at the Cameron Art Museum