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Jan. 14, 2004 – Mike Walsh opened his metal fabrication company in Peters Rest in 1978. In 2000, he and his wife, Barbara, created a gallery space within the warehouse there and began mounting fine-art exhibitions. Friday will bring the opening of Walsh's own first solo show, of metal sculpture and charcoal drawings.
Why the long timeline for Walsh the artist to make his solo debut on his own turf? "I wasn't ready," he says matter of factly.
But last year he decided that he was ready. Last year also was when he was one of four V.I. artists selected to represent the territory in the 5th Biennial of Caribbean Art in the Dominican Republic. The exhibition, at Santo Domingo's Museo de Arte Moderno, remains up through the first week of February. (See "4 V.I. artists showing in Santo Domingo Biennial".)
Walsh has titled his Metal Works Gallery show "Sin Ropa," Spanish for "without clothes." The drawings include life studies, and the sculptures, ranging "from knee-high to double overhead," include a new series of bronze pairs shown in various configurations so that they seem to be holding conversations.
According to publicity, "Scale, interaction and physicality are primary themes in Walsh's sculptural works … Even the smallest pieces feel as though they were conceived on a monumental proportion." The series of bronzes "recall St. Croix's mountain ranges when laid out almost underfoot, subtly placing the viewer at the altitude of a frigate bird or plane." And "an abstracted aluminum cliff, barely able to fit into the room, invites the dwarfed viewer to walk around or through it to explore its intricate play of angles."
And then there are the mirror boxes, inviting viewer interaction through physical exploration and size relationships. Placing one's head "inside the lion's mouth, a rather nondescript box on a pedestal," the publicity states, "reveals a mirrored infinity inside, reflecting the viewer's own image and creating a dynamic interior space that dwarfs the room that contains it. This interplay of scale and relative position throughout the exhibition creates a constant shifting of one's perceived role as subject or object in relation to the works."
Walsh took up residence on St. Croix in 1976, where he has raised a family, developed his successful metal fabrication business, and committed himself to local environmental issues and supporting the arts. His unique steel gate and metalwork designs are a familiar aspect of the island landscape — technically challenging commercial work that has, in a sense, been "a flexing of the muscles for the artist's fine-art works."
"Drawing the human figure has always been a love of mine that turns out to be a great discipline and format for understanding form," Walsh says. It "not only became a launching pad for undertaking abstract sculpture in metal but a moment in time existing completely in the process of drawing. It is the most pure state of making art for me."
He created the drawings of nudes, landscapes and abstract forms in the show using willow charcoal, "which is very black," and "a fresco charcoal I found in Italy that is a warmer, browner color. I often use both in the same drawing."
In the creative process, Walsh says, he is cognizant of how the human body as well as the mind will react to stimuli — light on a landscape, markings on paper or the angle of a plane in space. "Knowing how the line should be is a visceral decision-making process," he says. "If the line is correct, there's a sense of perfection in it — you feel in your gut. For the piece, there's a sense of completion — that the piece has become a separate entity, able to stand on its own, like a child."
Sculpturally speaking, "I only want to make pieces that are new discoveries, that answer my curiosity about what happens when certain ideas as realized — what the idea actually looks like," Walsh says. For the Santo Domingo Biennial, he submitted "pieces that I thought had the most to say about sculptural form, in that they were different, innovative … I think that they were chosen by the bienal committee for some of these reasons."
One of the two works, titled "God," consists of two parts in mild steel, each 9 feet high, 4 feet wide and 3 feet thick. The other, "The Veil," is 7 feet by 4 feet by 1 foot, in aluminum. Neither piece is particularly heavy, but both are bulky, and getting them through customs in Santo Domingo was "a little long, somewhat nerve-wracking and slightly hysterical in hindsight," he says.
Everyone in Santo Domingo "seemed friendly and cooperative until I got to customs," he relates. "Everyone there had their hand out for a bribe. I was very lucky to have a friend who knew his way around — which still cost some bribes but prevented a complete disaster."
His work as an artist "is directly tied to the commercial work I do day to day," Walsh says, and "the techniques I use to make a piece are much the same: sheared, formed, welded, ground and finished sheet metal." Some "mimic bar-stock forms that I might have used in that kind of a job," while others "are somewhat humorous (but not exclusively) extrapolations on the whole sheet-metal fabrication thing."
While having a market for large work "makes it more justifiable to actually undertake," he says, "for me, selling a piece is not much of a consideration when I make it." Large metal pieces "may represent a certain kind of solid-waste problem form eventually," the environmentalist in him quips, "but for now I'm getting a lot of satisfaction out of them. Keeping them around is also good from the standpoint of having a body of work on a large scale for possible exhibition" at a suitable venue — such as the St. George Village Botanical Garden show in March "which may take place outdoors in different areas of the garden."
Such things as salt and moisture in the tropical air pose no particular challenges, he says: "Those problems exist anywhere, and I actually use the corrosion along with acid treatments or varnishes to develop the finish on a piece."
To Walsh, the ideal venue for exhibition of his sculpture is "in public spaces like schools. To have some kind of stimulating influence on students and teachers while at the same time showing them that they [the students] are worth the effort and the attention is an appealing idea to me. The Middle Passage Monument is an example of this — and, as it turns out, one of the only pieces of mine actually on public display."
Being invited to create the physical monument for the project, initiated by St. Croix's Wayne James to mark the territory's 150 years of emancipation in 1998, "was a humbling honor," Walsh says, "because it was so deserving of effort. I could only feel grateful to have had that opportunity of working for an idea so much larger than my own small, personal world." (See the June 13, 1999, report "Middle Passage monument unveiled".)
"Most art shows attempt to translate the artist's physical labors into a psychological or verbal treatise," Barbara Walsh says. "There is rarely an opportunity at an art exhibition to re-experience the physical process by which the artist's body wrought the work. We stand passively and discuss the work with our verbal self-consciousness, reading a bio of the artist or examining a price list, our bodies idly holding a glass of wine and fidgeting in our art-exhibition finery."
She notes that "'Sin
easily permits the more literal minded to dismiss the title when we see the series of nude drawings. But 'Sin Ropa' also references the raw physicality of the work and its primal connection to the viewer, who is responsible for engaging with the artworks."
Mike Walsh has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Creighton University, a Catholic Jesuit institution in Omaha, Neb. Early in his career he worked in a bronze foundry and for other metal sculptors. "My sense of art comes from my education," he said, "but the substance comes from the work I've done for years." And that, he adds, is "another reason the one man [show] had to wait until now."
The public is invited to the gallery opening reception on Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. The show will remain in place through Feb. 13. The metalworks and gallery are located behind the Coca-Cola plant in Peters Rest. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, and by appointment. For more information, call 773-8169.

Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.January 14, 2004

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