The art of finding off-off-off-campus resources

MICA student searched city for industrial help with oversized sculptures

May 27, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Tucked among warehouses and topless bars in East Baltimore, the Chesapeake Machine Co. is a long way from the tree-lined boulevards of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

But for Sandy Torres, the machine shop might as well be a satellite campus of MICA. That is because the sculpture major from Annapolis, who graduated last week, says it is hard to imagine how she could have succeeded at MICA without the machine shop and other businesses like it.

Again and again, Torres ventured to the city's industrial fringes seeking help on the decidedly unindustrial mission that dominated her time at MICA: building large installations meant to evoke a baby's incubator. Torres spent the first days of her life in an incubator with a case of jaundice and is mildly obsessed with sculpting spaces in which she can re-create that experience.

Unusual as the project might be, the welders and machinists she sought out for mechanical work that couldn't be done on campus didn't flinch when she described it to them. An unlikely creative alliance was born, and Torres got to know a part of the city she never knew existed.

"It's a challenge for a sculptor to translate their half-crazed ideas into something the machinist can understand. It's hard, because I don't go by measurements. I say, `I want it to look like this,'" said Torres, 21. "But they loved it - getting creative, working with something that's a little strange."

Torres is not the first art student to scour the city for material or technical assistance. But by all accounts, she has been uniquely aggressive in taking advantage of Baltimore's hidden resources.

"Her attitude is looking at the machine shop as a fancy pair of pliers, a tool that can do things you can't do with a screwdriver," said Art Benson, one of Torres' sculpture professors.

She started seeking help to bend metal from Joseph Kavanagh on South Central Avenue. He, in turn, sent her to Chesapeake Machine Co. on Janney Street, which has done metal-bending and welding for Torres. When she needed more steel, Chesapeake sent her to Durrett-Sheppard in East Baltimore, which obliged her request though it was for a piece far smaller than typical orders.

There also were visits to Garron Plastics in East Baltimore, Kaplan Bros. Glass in southern Baltimore and Acme Ladder in Brooklyn, where Torres found what she was looking for: old wheels from the bottoms of scaffolding platforms.

At every stop, Torres said, she was astounded by workers' willingness to take time to help, rather than dismissing her requests as a bizarre distraction.

The workers say she shouldn't have been surprised. The rare visits they get from artists provide a welcome break from their usual tasks, they say.

"It's kind of neat, because in a way you have input into what their final product looks like," said David Breeding, 35, a Chesapeake mechanic. "Because they don't know exactly how they want it to look, you get to use your imagination."

As for the projects, the workers withhold judgment. After all, Torres is paying for the work, albeit not very much. Said Kavanagh: "I'm not going to say that sometimes it doesn't seem crazy, but they're the artist and they know what they're doing. I keep an open mind with it."

Two days after her graduation last week, Torres drove to Chesapeake with rum cakes as a thank-you and to check on her latest request: a metal frame with curved corners for an oversized incubator she is building.

When it is done, and when it is time for the next gallery show, she will climb into it for a kind of static performance art, somewhat similar to her display at the MICA senior show last week. There, Torres spent 12 hours over three days lying inside a small room wearing a huge plaster doll's head she had sculpted and surrounded by an oversized child's bed and contorted dolls she made out of porcelain, while gallery-goers peered in at her through a glass window.

The display was eerie and especially unnerving coming from someone as sunny as Torres. As Benson put it, a viewer could not "but encounter some very strong revelations of sanctuary and isolation and the inability to communicate."

There is no such talk when she visits the workers who help her. Instead, they banter about the welding helmet Breeding gave her as a graduation present, or about the caricatures Breeding draws of his co-workers.

"Dealing with artists all the time is stuffy," she said. "When they make things, they're really proud of themselves. Whereas these guys make things all the time."

Torres, whose works were selected for the biennial "Options" show for emerging artists at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in March, will attend graduate art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is looking forward to it, but she doubts that she'll find as much outside help in Richmond.

"I'll have to make a lot of trips to Baltimore," she said.

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