Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Metal artist Blair Clement brings wave-washed junk to life

Posted:  Sunday, September 20, 2015 - 10:15pm
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Blair Clement, of Matinicus Island and Thomaston, loves to walk the shoreline. Everybody loves a sandy beach in the warm summer sun, but Blair also gets a lot out of exploring the more rugged coves and the rocky inlets, to poke along the water's edge when the fog may make others lose interest in the beach, and to focus her attention on a few objects which are clearly out of place. Instead of turning her nose up at "beach trash," Blair walks over for a closer look.

What she "gets" out of such a walk—in addition to exercise and quiet and scenery and a nice outing for Eddie the corgi —is art supplies. Blair makes work both beautiful and comical out of beach gleanings. The usual art jargon calls her medium "found objects;" mostly, it is scrap metal. She is a very special sort of recycler.

"Cans, trash, copper, auto parts..." and once in a while, things non-metallic, like pieces of an antique china plate or a bone or a knot of driftwood cover her workbench. She is not above taking aesthetic pleasure, or at least an interest, in true trash. "Melted plastic rope makes a neat colorful mass for something like a reef," Blair explains. Why is there melted rope-- and melted metal-- in the surf? Island lobstermen burn stuff, especially old rope and trash (or they used to a lot more than they do now around here, before we had a recycling program,) and metal junk, including the odd beverage can or two, found its way into the burn pile from time to time. Metal and plastic items become bubbly blobs, or rather, "some really neat textured bits," as Blair puts it. Now that's looking on the bright side!

"I have no plan when walking shorelines. You never know what you'll find, and of course I can't help but lug treasures home. Once you get doing this it becomes addictive." All her materials are found on Matinicus Island, although Blair has workshop spaces both on Matinicus and in Thomaston. "The metal is scrubbed, cleaned with a Dremel tool with a wire brush, and I find that nice etched surfaces appear. I don't do any surface treatment except cleaning and polishing." She talks about the joy of the process, the fun of making things; her work is never about cranking out production. There is rarely a finished product in her mind's eye. "I'll do stuff for people once in a while in the sense that I'll keep their hoped-for thing in mind, but I can't really 'fill orders.' I make no promises about how long it might take, because you can't hurry finding the right parts."

Most of Blair's sculptures—for technically, that is what they must be—are critters, either real or imaginary. There are fish, lots of fish; many Matinicus homes are graced with at least one of Blair's fish. My own is old and no longer shiny, made largely of sardine cans, including a "Port Clyde Foods" can which once had the printing clearly still visible (I made the mistake of hanging it in a window too long and the paint has sadly faded away). I worked in the Port Clyde Foods cannery in Rockland as a teenager, so as I told Blair, I might have packed that very same can of sardines. In addition to the sardine can, that particular fish has a blue glass light bulb base for an eye, a bit of electrical scrap that made me think, "This fish needs to go home with the island electrician," who happened to be my husband. More than one of her fish found their homes because of some silly resemblance or special point of connection with the buyer.

A few years back she constructed an ornate Chinese dragon, for a middle-school girl who loved dragons, and on the wall of Blair's Matinicus cottage hangs a lovably quirky driftwood-and-scrap-metal alligator. This summer, a few birds joined the metal menagerie.

A very special piece of art, cherished by her community, is the unique cross Blair made for the Matinicus Church, at the request of the church trustees. Fish and birds play at the foot and the head of the cross, though, and a rocky-looking reef with a tangle of marine plants make up the base of it, so even this non-animal is filled with life and movement.

Suzanne Rankin, church trustee and island historian, calls it "the Cross of Found Objects," observing that many of the folks on Matinicus Island have sort of washed up there from somewhere else, to discover an unexpectedly close relationship with the place, with the natural world, and often with each other. "We are all "found objects" in a way," Rankin laughs.

Perhaps hoping not to be too sentimental, Blair mentioned to me as I took the photograph how, "The crucifix is made, I think, mostly from stuff from trucks and cars."

Blair's card says "Hunter, Gatherer." Her workshop full of treasures and trash and random shapes of salt-washed sheet metal is certain evidence of that. Keep on "hunting, gathering!"


EvaEva Murray lives on Matinicus

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