Metals as a medium
Artist Jeffrey Maron explains why using brass instead of canvas works best for his pieces
By Meghan Siroky
Jeffrey Maron: I've been making art since 1970. My mother was an artist. She taught painting in the basement of our home. Although when I was a young boy, I never wanted to be a painter or work with her on that level. I wanted to use my hands. I've always had a great desire to use my hands, and I find that my life really is connected when I'm working with my hands. So it sort of led to what I'm doing now. When I was a kid, I had a little workshop behind the painting classroom, and I used to build model airplanes. I spent three weeks building one and 10 minutes crashing it.
What kinds of materials do you use for your sculptures?
I refer to it as a copper alloy when technically, it's brass. I use yellow brass, which is 85 percent copper and 15 percent zinc. I stay away from leaded brasses. I've used this material for more than 30 years. I etch it and color it with oxide. It's very important to me. I can bring out incredible colors on the surface of both my sculptures and paintings. I paint on a copper material. Basically, I'll make a big etching plate. Then, I'll color it with oxide. If you look at the paintings on my website, those are not on canvas; those are on brass. It's 3/32-in. thick. It's etched, and then it's put on a frame that's also brass. They weigh about 100 lbs.
I do one-of-a-kind things. My life revolves around a dance that I do with this material where the result is an object or painting that speaks for itself. It takes that material and my effort to transform it into something that's actually more than both. For me, it's like magic. This metal and I are almost in a struggle. It's getting to know me, and I'm getting to know it. Then all of a sudden, it sort of yields to my purpose.
Every winter, I have one large work that I basically build by myself. It could be 7 ft. or 8 ft. tall. They generally end up weighing 300 lbs. to 400 lbs. It becomes almost magical. I treat my studio as a place where that's possible, so I'm very strict about what I will do there and what I will not.
What kinds of feelings do these materials evoke?
Sometimes people have a feeling in their hearts. That's what I'm really trying to reach--right into the person's heart. The way I work is from my heart through my hands. The brain almost doesn't get involved too much. I sometimes think my hands have a journey of their own. I work with a series of shapes and forms that are emblematic of a certain type of energy. People recognize, without me saying anything, that the work has a spiritual feeling to it. I'm not talking about religion. I'm taking about the energy that we share. These are icons that represent that shared commonality among us. We are all one community of people. We're coming to a moment in our time when we're being forced to realize that. We're being forced to confront it. I think one of the easiest ways is through art.
What kinds of tools do you use?
I've had some of my tools for more than 30 years. These tools are my friends. We do good work together. I depend largely on a bandsaw for cutting out shapes. I usually build constructions from 8-in.-thick to 3/32-in.-thick brass. It's fairly heavy but not too heavy. I'll use 1/4-in. material when I need it for a base of a work or structurally inside. I'll use stainless steel fasteners to give it strength, and I use non-electrical stainless steel so there's no galvanic problems later on.
Tell me a little bit about your vajras creations.
Vajras are what the Buddhists deities, in Japanese and Chinese art, hold in their hands. They represent aspects of the laws of Buddhism. Buddhism has been near and dear to me because it says all living things deserve to be happy and have compassion. I think that's a place we've got to drive our consciousness to. We're all together on this planet; we all want to be happy, and we all want to share the resources. Buddhism is not a religion; it's a philosophy. The philosophy is basically, show your compassion for everyone. Life is a struggle, but it can be a fun, beautiful struggle. The vajras were always very interesting; they drew me in as objects. So I decided to make my own.
What are you working on now?
I've tried to devote my energy to transforming the environment of healthcare. This goes back to the 80s when a lot of people in the art world were affected by the AIDS crisis. These people would routinely end up in the hospital, dying. I was appalled at the conditions of the hospitals. Not technically, but as an environment. I couldn't see how someone could work there for eight hours and not be adversely affected by it. So I decided to take a good part of my career and energy and devote it to trying to transform the environment of healthcare with art. Art is a healing mechanism, and it can be used very well in that context. At the Hillman Cancer Center, part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, we transformed the environment completely from the very beginning before it was built. The support for what was done there was tremendous. It was a $120 million building.
I've been told by doctors and other people there just how powerful it is. There are two buildings separated by an atrium. In the atrium, I flew these abstract birds on cables. When you're sitting in a treatment room getting chemotherapy, you look out the window into the atrium and there's this big abstract bird begging for your attention. If it distracts you for five minutes, it's working. It really is what needs to be done in healthcare to make the environment more conducive to human interaction. FFJ
Click here for more photos of Maron's creations.