Wilmington, NC – Supply shopping for Wilmington artists Dan Brawley and Dixon Stedler requires work gloves, wire cutters, and an innocent smile.
The smile belongs to Stedler, who uses it on the property owners who sometimes catch her popping out of their dumpsters.
Brawley says he usually leaves that kind of work to his partner in crime; "when I jump into somebody's dumpster or go behind their building," he says, "they come after me. If Dixon is there, they say, 'Oh, Shug, can I help?'"
Dixon agrees. She's gained quite a reputation for jumping into dumpsters.
Seated in the shuddering cab of their '65 Ford pickup, Brawley and Stedler are on the prowl this afternoon, searching for the raw materials of their art - wires, cables, hoses, anything they can twist and weave into interesting forms. The materials they're gleaning are eventually destined for the walls of the Cameron Art Museum. While they won't start weaving for months, in the eyes of these two, the process of creation has already begun.
Their art, Brawley explains, is more about the journey 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 just beyond the trees. For these two, the endless 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. Other trips are all about refrigerator cable. Since the Cameron exhibition will require them to cover a lot of area, the artists' goal today is wire with the right flexibility, diameter, and weight 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 particularly good finds.
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 they don't complain too much; high prices are still a relative thing.
Brawley explains: "It's still cheap compared to, if we were painters, and we were going and buying oil paint. 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, create some sort of industrial skeleton.
All this trash comes laden with meaning for Brawley. As he sees it, makes art from cast-offs is his connection 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."
When the scrap yard closes at four, Brawley and Stedler hit the streets in full hunter-gatherer mode.
Their meandering route through Wilmington follows 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, the artists 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 from the library basement, endless cables from Time Warner, the summer all their friends kept leaving garden hoses at their back gate.
If this is art-making, it's certainly a lot of fun.
Fun was less in evidence when Brawley and Stedler actually began to install their work at the Cameron earlier this week. Now it's all about tired fingers, aching backs, and sleep deprivition. In name of performance, Stedler and Brawley have actually moved into the museum.
"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 the artists 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 heady 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 sculptures Stedler and Brawley are creating embody all these ideas - they're giant, bulbous, strange, and playful. 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 the artists made a deal with Terry Horton - all the materials they've taken for this project were free, on the condition that everything come 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
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