Unconventional Warren artist turns property into outdoor gallery

Why does everyone want to get their hands on Jay Sawyer's 'balls'?

Posted:  Sunday, September 16, 2012 - 5:15am
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You don't forget a guy like Jay Sawyer when you first meet him. Big, raw-boned, in a faded Pink Floyd T-shirt with a go-to-hell beard. Intimidating at first, until he eases into conversation, feeling comfortable enough to let a few F-bombs fly. Then, you know, he likes you.


Eight months ago

A friend and I were knocking around last October, on a beautiful crisp day, when she pulled into a dirt driveway off Camden Road/Route 90, which connects Warren with Rockport. A beat up pickup truck painted with the colors of the American flag sat by the gate.

"Good," she said. "The gate's open. You gotta see this guy's sculptures."

"What are we doing?" I remember asking. "Can we just... go walk around on his land?"

"Yeah, the gate's open. That means he wants us to."

I'd been to outdoor galleries before, but nothing of what I was about to see was in any way typical.  Beyond the natural beauty of the sloping pine grove of his property, several winding paths led out to a lily pad choked pond and a large expanse of lawn.  Tucked in spots around this wooded canvas were these odd configurations of metal, many of them spherical and more than eight-feet tall. This outdoor showcase featuring all of these scrap metal sculptures was called Stemwinder Sculpture Works & Garden. I immediately pulled out my camera. That's when I saw Sawyer come walking toward us.

"Hey there," he said, with an unflappable Maine accent. "I'm happy to have you walk around my garden, I just need to ask what you’re going to do with the pictures."

As a self-taught artist who has worked hard over the last 10 years not only to perfect his particular brand of welded sculpture, his question generated a thoughtful conversation around the ethics of taking photographs of a artist’s work and displaying it on one’s professional website, particularly, if the photo is for sale. (Luckily for me, I snapped the pictures just planning a story.) But it’s a big gray area among artists, regarding who should receive credit, the photographer for the image or the artist for the work. And where is the respectful balance at which both parties benefit?

It's all in the phrasing

Over the last eight months, Sawyer and I have gotten to know one another and have developed a mutual respect. It's a rare occurrence that I'll let myself be as unedited with someone I'm interviewing as Sawyer, but no one's here to clutch their pearls. As we once again walk through his property, I'm mostly drawn to his rustic spheres made out of old horseshoes or shear rings fashioned perfectly round. Asked how he does that, he chuckles, “That’s the 64,000 question, now isn’t it?”

"I'll tell you," he said. "I get the funniest comments about these spheres. I had a guy come up to me a couple of months ago and tell me in all seriousness, 'My wife loves your balls.' And then later, she came up to me and said, 'I can't stop rubbing your balls.' " Chuckling, he said: "I was just trying to keep a straight face and you know, thank her for the compliment."

Sawyer’s unconventional path as a commercial welder to a full-fledged sculptor/artist started later in life. He has lived in his hometown of Warren since 1973. After graduating from Maine Maritime Academy, Sawyer worked as a marine engineer, and then started his own welding business in 1994. 

All of Sawyer’s signature pieces are constructed from salvaged materials removed from old mills, demolished buildings junkyards, and scrap metal yards.

“I think from the moment that I was actually trying to build a sculpture, I had it in mind that my goal was to be a sculptor and be recognized as an artist,” he said. While others contemplating a career change might jump into college programs, Sawyer never pursued formal training; he just started forming pieces that felt right to him. Around 2005, he began to make welded art in earnest. Each piece was added it to his outdoor garden. Soon, other artists, gallery owners and architects were consulting and commissioning his pieces. Last year, his income from his art surpassed what he had been making as a welder.

You get the feeling that initially, when he began sculpting, the term “artist” might have felt as comfortable as wearing a tuxedo to beach. But over the years, Sawyer’s work has spoken for itself and with each commercial success and recognition from the local art world, he has reconciled himself to what the term artist means for him.

Rock N Roll and an old friend’s legacy

The spheres that Sawyer is known for all have stories, of course. Most of the salvaged pieces are recovered from Maine locations. One of his first welded series used horseshoes; he eventually moved on to work with other unlikely materials, for example: metal pieces shaped like bow ties and steel shear rings, used in the construction of the trusses that went over a hangar at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The shear rings have the most emotional resonance for Sawyer, for they were materials his late friend and mentor David McLaughlin, also worked with.

McLaughlin, also a welder/sculptor, didn’t pass up a chance to find some quirky salvaged material to re-use in his own art. “David had self-diagnosed his obsession with scrap metals as Acquisition Disorder,” Sawyer jokes.  Before McLaughlin passed away, he’d left a note stating that he wanted Sawyer to have his remaining collection of shear rings to carry on the subject of spheres in his absence.

 A Spirit Of Its Own was inspired by Sawyer’s earlier creation Late Collaboration, which had a McLaughlin sphere tucked inside one of Sawyer’s larger spheres. In A Spirit Of Its Own Sawyer created both the smaller and larger sphere, using some of McLaughlin’s remaining shear rings.  

“We had a ton of mutual respect,” said Sawyer. “He felt there was going to be success in my work and I think that was his way of contributing as a gift to me. And so, in return, I hope to help contribute to his legacy and his influence on many, many people in the state. He’s one of the closest friends I’ve had. “

The Alice-In-Wonderland meets Steampunk gazebo was another McLaughlin-inspired find on a salvage job the two of them did together.  The canopy is the belly pan of a water tower that stood at a woolen mill down in Lisbon Falls.

“I found myself looking straight on to this spherical shape and I’m drawn to that shape, obviously,” said Sawyer. “And it was just so beautiful. I wanted to build the most beautiful gazebo you’d ever seen.”

At 14-and-a-half feet, it had to be hand cut in half with an oxy acetylene torch and carried home on a flatbed truck. Then, Sawyer re-assembled it and took his trusty 65,000 pound 1970s vintage excavator, Big Bertha, swung the belly pan upside down and affixed it atop the stump of a dead tree. At Stemwinder Sculpture Works & Garden, amidst all of the other rusting hulking “flowers,” the canopy is immensely at odds with nature, yet so beautiful, indeed. Couples have already asked to pose under it for wedding day photos and another couple is slated to get married under it this fall.

If Sawyer is around for that wedding, just don’t expect him to show up in a tuxedo.

Stemwinder Sculpture Works & Garden’s entrance is open Sundays and Mondays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. or by appointment.  For more information contact Jay Sawyer, 207.273.3948 or www.stemwindersculpture.com