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Climbing Rocks, Casting Bronze, Making Art

by Jerome Weeks 16 Mar 2017
Jason Mehl

His degree is in environmental science, so Jason Mehl's artistry is mostly self-taught. It's no surprise, then, his sculptures - in wood, glass, ceramics or bronze - reflect natural shapes, the biomorphic twists and turns of wood or bones, the erosion-smooth curves of rocks. Mehl's already had solo shows in Houston, Austin, Dallas and Korea, and he's the new director of the artist's residency at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. But then there's his habit of disappearing into the mountains ...

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.


We’re at what’s called a ‘pour.’ That’s when hot, liquid bronze gets poured into hollow casts. Inside the casts, the bronze’ll cool and form the separate pieces of a metal sculpture. We’re at Schaefer Art Bronze Casting in Arlington, one of the only local foundries left still doing this work. And that roaring you hear is not from the squat round furnace in the corner. It’s the blower. You need a lot of oxygen to get a gas flame above 2000 degrees in order to melt a dozen 30-pound bronze ingots the size of bricks.

“So this is the part,” Jason Mehl shouts over the roar, “where it’s nice to be able to defer to people that are more skilled at certain things than me.”

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Jason Mehl holding a prize skull in the Fairmont Hotel suite that’s reserved for the artist’s residency there. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Mehl has been crafting bronze sculptures like this, with the ‘lost wax process,’ since returning to Dallas three and a half years ago. He watches as a team of men in ‘space suits’ — they’re wearing welder’s masks and shiny aluminum hoods and coveralls — hook up a giant tong-like contraption to the pot inside the furnace. The pot is the red-hot crucible, brimming with glowing, liquid bronze. A chain winch helps the two men lift the 300-pound crucible over to the casts. These look like big wine carafes with wide open mouths on top. They’re actually made of a silica compound, but they look like they’re made from white plaster, although right now, they’re glowing red because they’ve been pre-heated in an oven. You pour liquid bronze into a room-temperature cast and the thing’ll crack, even explode.

Carefully, the men tip the crucible. The melted bronze splashes, one by one, into each open mouth.

This isn’t like daubing paint on a canvas. It’s hard, hot, noisy, industrial labor, and this is just the dramatic midpoint of the multi-step process that ends with a finished metal sculpture.

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David Winterrowd grinds a new small sculpture by Jason Mehl. To the right stands the kind of trophy figure that’s a bread-and-butter project for Schaefer Art Casting. Photo: Jerome Weeks

The artist first creates his desired statue in whatever material he wants. Mehl, in fact, often uses discarded or recycled materials, old styrofoam or wood. That original model is then cast in rubber. A wax mold — a copy of the original figure — is made from that. And that wax figure is then slathered with the silica compound and left to harden. But the cast also has spidery pipes attached (called ‘gating’ — as in ‘open the gates’). These provide entry points and passages for the hot bronze to flow and fill every nook and cranny, leaving no bubbles inside. The cast is then baked, melting the wax out of it – hence the term, “lost wax process.”

It’s only then that the  ‘pour’ can happen.

Yet all of that is only the prep work before the sawing and grinding (removing the stubs left behind by the gating). Then the separate pieces are welded together to  form the whole sculpture, and that’s polished or roughed up or patinaed (depending on the texture or color desired — Mehl’s sculpture featured in the image up top is ‘Windswept’ and it’s made of bronze with a speckled blue-green patina). Casting bronze is one of the oldest metal crafts in human history. It’s older than Christianity, older than the Trojan War, it may even be older than writing itself. It’s what separated the Neolithic Age (‘new stone age’) from the Bronze Age about six thousand years ago.

Even today, bronze casting is a laborious, complicated, sometimes dangerous craft — the team at Schaefer Casting suit up for good reason. So it’s amazing humans developed – so early – the high-temperature capacity to create bronze (an alloy of brass and tin) and then shape useful, beautiful works out of this hard, resilient metal.

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‘Abyss,’ bronze and flocking, 2016

Of the 300 or so artists Schaefer Casting works with, only about 30 regularly get involved in the process. Only ten are like Mehl – creating abstract, contemporary artworks. Most are working on trophies or Western art, the jumping bronco that stands on your desk, the career award your company gives you. And most just shape the original figure and then hand it over to these guys. They do all the molding, casting, welding, grinding and polishing.

“Each step is its own skill set,” explains Mehl. “So I have to ask questions constantly. Luckily, I’m not afraid to because I can fall back on the ‘Sorry, I didn’t go to art school. How do you do this?’”

That’s right. Mehl’s degree from Stephen F. Austin State University is in environmental science, not art. The 39-year-old artist is self-taught and still learning – yet he’s had solo shows in Houston, Dallas, Austin and Korea. He’s also the new director of the artist’s residency at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. He’ll head up a six-person panel that’ll choose the next artists to stay in a Fairmont suite and work in a lobby gallery for several months.

remnant I

‘Remnant I,’ wood, ceramic, bamboo cord, 2014. Rachel Nash Gallery.

Even now, Mehl remains a passionate environmentalist. He’ll just … disappear into the woods. He spent his last college semester living in the woods in a tent – and caught Lyme disease. He’s vagabonded through India, Costa Rica and Vietnam — sometimes with just a few bucks in his pocket. Wandering up the West Coast into Canada, he lived out of a truck.

“I don’t really own any furniture,” he explains. “I own as little as possible.”

The artist as true bohemian: no fixed abode and no permanent job. Over the years, Mehl has been hired for various projects, often working on environmental studies. He climbed smokestacks in Dallas to take air pollution samples. Characteristically, he visited the rugged Joshua Tree National Park intending to stay only a few days – and ended up working for a year as a rock climbing guide.

“Jason’s a rock climber,” says Phyllis O’Quinn, “because it’s probably the safest-looking sport that is really trying to kill yourself all the time.”

Phyllis O’Quinn became friends with Mehl in Korea in 2010 when they were both teaching there. She’s currently a principal for an online school. It was during his five years in Korea that Mehl shifted from environmental scientist to sculptor. As long ago as high school, he says, he’d fooled around with ceramics and cameras. But in Korea, he learned sandcasting – a different kind of casting in bronze – from the Korean master Shin Park. Basically, Mehl plunged into art. Then and there, he co-founded an artists’ collective.

“I always thought I could focus on my art when I got older,” he says. “But I realized, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never have the time.”

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Untitled, cast glass, 2015.

Not surprisingly, Mehl’s artistic practice incorporates his environmental thinking (he constantly scrounges and recycles materials) and his sculptures themselves resemble natural shapes: driftwood, fossils, corals, weathered rocks. In this, a number of his more conventional works are in the line of biomorphic modernism that goes back to Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and up to current artists such as Tony Cragg.  Mehl says one of the few things he actually keeps and carries around with him are favorite rocks or bones. There is more than a touch of suiseki –– the Japanese appreciation of stones — in all of Mehl’s rock climbing and stone-shaped sculptures.

As Mehl says, he enjoys the paradoxes involved with using bronze — taken from metals in the earth — then using that in sculptures to suggest the ephemeral, the melting, the dead and eroding. Once you know the title ‘Windswept,’ the image of billowing air currents is clear. To increase that sense of impermanence, many of his cast works are one-offs. The overall suggestion is supposed to be one of wilderness fading, the last one of its kind, the ice melts and it’s gone. It’s a tenet of suiseki to seek all of nature, the whole world, in a single rock. The curves and loops of Mehl’s sculptures can be beautiful in their sensual way – whether made of cast glass, resin or bronze — but they also can be a little creepy. Some look like bleached bones or they’re trussed up in chains or ropes. Mehl says he wants an element of surprise in his art – that moment you’ve spotted something on the beach but aren’t sure what it is yet.

In his art and his life, O’Quinn believes, Mehl was more or less winging it.

“I wouldn’t say ‘winging it,’” she says with a laugh, “but I know that’s what he would say. “I would say, ‘playing with fire.’ But he would say ‘just winging it.'”

In effect, Mehl is the artist as both go-for-it risk-taker and obsessive problem-solver.

“Almost everything I do would be considered a mistake,” he says. That’s how he learns — and then goes back to try again. “No day is the same. And I thrive off of  change.”

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‘Bukhansen,’ epoxy, resin, clay, paint and chain, 2011-2014 in the Rachel Nash Gallery.

Mehl works intuitively, impulsively but also with intense focus, like an investigator. But these days, O’Quinn says, Mehl’s become more organized, less trial-and-error, more methodical. He has to be – working in a complicated, costly process like bronze casting.

For his part, Mehl says he’s come to realize he needs art, travel and wilderness in his life. That’s the balance he seeks now: art, travel and wilderness.

Two weeks after the pour, Mehl headed off to the mountains in Colorado.

When did you start really thinking of yourself as an artist?

I think people referred to me as an artist even when I was in high school because I used to go in an hour early to school and spend all my time in the ceramics lab or dark room. I was constantly creating things. But there was a large part of me that wanted to study either forestry or environmental science. I kind of envisioned myself out in the middle of nowhere being a park ranger, working on research projects or something. So I was very hesitant to call myself an artist and thought it was something I could always do when I got older.

But that began to change especially when I got to South Korea.  I realized, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never have the time.

And so, when I started focusing more on the sculptures, all I wanted to do was just allow myself to explore forms, do what I want and see what’s possible. I told myself there’s no bar to how much money I can put into it, as long I have that money in the first place. As long as I’m experimenting and having fun and gaining something out of it. Same reason I travel. Same reason I lived out of a truck and traveled all over the West Coast for years, was because it’s a life experience. And a life’s narrative is the most important thing.

So I felt like art was another way to enrich my life and add another layer to the narrative. So I started making things, and within a year I knew it was really all that I wanted to be doing.

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‘A Window into Eternity,’ cast glass, wood, stone, bamboo cord, 2014. Rachel Nash Gallery.

 

How has returning to North Texas affected you, affected your art?

I do think it’s actually been a little more difficult in a way because I don’t get out into wilderness as often. That may sound ridiculous to someone who knows I’ve lived in South Korea and who hasn’t been there.  Seoul in South Korea, the city dwarfs New York City, but the country of Korea as a whole is 70 percent mountains. So as soon as the mountain starts, the city stops. And I can take the subway there, just a few stops away, and I’ll be in something that feels like wilderness. Here, it takes a bit more of a journey [laughs].

Since my work is inspired by nature, I definitely need some road trips, which takes me away from the studio time. But at the same time, I’m learning more about art, art history and technique, everything I’d know if only I would have focused on it more. So I’ve seen huge leaps forwards in my technical ability here, my ability to create forms that really register as a natural form — despite my being in the middle of a city. And I think part of that may be because of my longing for some time outdoors. I’m going to need some time soon, seeing how topographically challenged Dallas is.

What did you give up to pursue your art — other than your different short-term jobs?

At times I’ve done well. At other times, I’ve been living off of teaching at a university and a few other jobs. I even worked as an art handler and a truck driver for a while and moved art all over the country. Then I’d come back and work on art for a few weeks and go back out. I guess what I gave up was the chance to have a comfortable living situation — originally, that is. Now, you’re talking to me inside of a fancy hotel room, at the very top floor [of the Fairmont, where Mehl was finishing his artist’s residency].

It’s a suite, so it’s pretty sweet. But it’s also ephemeral. This ends in two weeks. I’ll throw everything in storage, load up and start looking for a new space. I’m going to road trip through Colorado for a while and see what happens.

What’s the advantage – if any – of living like this and pursuing your art?

No day is the same. And I thrive off of change. I think I mentioned it earlier. I’m pretty good at problem solving. So I don’t do badly with an unknown schedule. I’ll juggle a bunch of jobs at the same time. I might be finishing up a few pieces off-site at the same time that I’m starting totally new projects here. A lot of times, I just walk into the studio and start looking around. I might have a coffee or something. Maybe that’s my ritual: caffeine addiction.

How many cups do you drink?

It started with one. In the time that I’ve been at the Fairmont [laughs] — when I look out my glass door [in the gallery] the first thing I see is a Starbucks across the lobby. Which has kind of been great and dangerous at the same time. So I’ll cut back to one cup a day after this place.

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‘Luxury or Survival,’ bronze, 2013

You’ve spoken about how your environmental background informs your art, their natural shapes. But has it informed the way you think about your art? The way you do it?

What I find really interesting is that more and more wild areas are disappearing or becoming further separated from our daily lives. And yet these industrial materials are all around. Bronze is an industrial material. The waste block of foam pulled out of a lake is an industrial material. And I take these discarded elements and turn them into something that reflects their original starting point. They were once raw materials that were part of the earth, but they were pulled out, they became something. Who knows how many steps along the way they’ve been changed to something else that was usable by us? And now I’m turning them back into something that’s a shadow of what it once was. In a way, as hard and permanent as my sculptures seem, they’re shadows, they’re ghosts of what they were originally.

And in that way I think sculpture’s interesting — because we’re paying homage to something a lot of us don’t see in our daily lives anymore.

Are you ever creatively satisfied?

That’s not possible. If I was, then I’d be doing the wrong thing. I’m always creatively exploring. So there’s a degree of satisfaction in knowing that there’s never an end. And I can always go further. And there is no limit to the forms that I can make.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity. Sculpture up top: ‘Windswept,’ cast bronze with blue-green patina, 2013

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