Earlier in his career, assemblage artist Eric Schultz had a little trouble with respect. He was rejected by quite a few shows and venues. Various curators told him they weren’t interested in “outsider art,” or that his works were “unfinished.”

“I thought it was bizarre, like, ‘What do you mean it’s ‘unfinished?’ I’m finished!’” Schultz says. “It’s bizarre because now (assemblage art) is looked at as cutting edge. But still, what I’m doing is a little different. There are a lot of people who work with recycled materials but they more or less fill a form. I actually look at the things I use and relate them to the piece itself. I consider the macro and the micro.”

For example, Schultz constructed an angel sculpture using materials all somewhat related to air, such as pieces of an old Eureka vacuum cleaner. “Sometimes an object will tell me what it wants to be, sometimes I have an idea beforehand,” Schultz says.

An exhibit of Shultz’s assemblage, titled “Discarded Visions,” is on view at the Gallery at the Chapin School through Friday, December 11. It seems apt for Schultz to exhibit in a school (also open to the public). Children can wrap their imaginations around Schultz’ animals, cars, robots, and special creatures constructed of kitchen appliances, bottle caps, telephone wires, computer parts, and whatnot. Perhaps this is because Schultz still has a child’s imagination of his own. Since age five, the artist has been making artwork out of “stuff.” He jokes that his mother had to make sure to batten down the hatches because he would try to take just about anything apart and create something out of it.

‘My mom had to duct tape a lot of things shut,” Schultz says. “She was a nurse and musician, and my dad was a mechanic, and somewhere in the middle, I happened, with this ability to combine mechanical skills and creativity. (Because of my dad’s workshop) I was always around parts of things, and I didn’t know what they were, but I would make stuff out of them.

“Then in college, I didn’t have money for materials to make things, so I used what I had out of necessity,” he continues. “People started seeing my work and they’d send me these boxes of weird things, just leave them on my doorstep. My friends thought I was turning into Fred Sanford from ‘Sanford and Son,’ the junkman. I didn’t start off doing this because it’s green and environmentally friendly. I did this long before.”

One piece in the exhibit is titled “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and shows a fisherman on a small, primitive boat, hooking a shiny sea creature several times the size of the vessel. A frequent visitor to Key West, Schultz was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s home and adventures in and around Key West, as well as the writing that came from that era of the author’s life. “It’s inspired by ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ but it’s also the idea that sometimes people bite off more than they can chew,” Schultz says. “He has no idea the fish is so huge. He’s thinking, ‘Oh yeah, just fishing.’”

The sea is made from colorful telephone and computer wire, pieces of tin roofing make up the boat, and other things that Schultz has collected do the rest. The fisherman’s hat is constructed from a piece of an old oven. The scales of the fish are comprised of flattened beer bottle caps that the artist has painted, revealing his “shiny addiction,” as he puts it. “It took a lot of beers to make that fish,” he says. “It was a labor of love.”

“Art is nothing without people,” he writes in his artist’s statement. “Art springs from our thoughts, dreams and imagination. I am a person who truly enjoys people and their creations. This love of life and art has guided my talent on the long journey from scribbler to creator. In my case, being an artist is to love creating artwork that evokes wonder in the imagination of the passerby, a quest for the secret story behind the object. This is why I create work from everyday found objects.

“Everywhere there are discarded treasures to find and recycle into new art,” Schultz’s statement continues. “This technique helps the viewer to identify and feel the link between the materials, the forms I create, and the stories they imagine. If I achieve this link, I feel that I have created a successful piece of artwork that everyone can enjoy.”

Growing up in Trenton, central Pennsylvania, and Doylestown, Schultz, 33, was a born tinkerer. His mother, who still lives in Doylestown, was at the very tail end of the “hippie thing,” as Schultz puts it, and played guitar in bands, sang, and wrote songs. “She’s interesting,” Schultz says. “She likes classic rock but leans more toward blues and country. She’s very creative. My dad was creative in his own way, very good at math, which I’m not, and a genius with fixing things, just an all around mechanic.”

Schultz graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, in 2000, but had already been showing his work. Soon he was taking part in shows at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s gallery, at City Hall in Philadelphia, and in juried shows at Trenton City Museum. More recently, he has been featured in exhibits at the Noyes Museum in Oceanville.

In 2008, Schultz re-imagined a Volkswagen Beetle for the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill, turning the vehicle into a ladybug. It is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. He also teaches classes in found object/recycled art there and says he gets great ideas from the kids. “They’re so honest, in fact they’re brutal when they’re looking at your art,” he says. “They don’t know when they’re insulting you. They’ll say, ‘excuse me, but elephants aren’t green.’ On the other hand, the art world is so convoluted, (critics) will tell you stuff, but it’s not what they’re really thinking. That’s why I like kids.”

It would be tough to nail down Schultz’ specific influences, but certainly science and science fiction have always fueled his imagination. “If you were to look at my childhood toys, you’d see that science fiction has shaped a lot of what I make,” he says. “I’m also interested in anthropology; I like to think about why people do what they do. Mechanical things inspire me, so do animals and nature of course, and music. I can’t make anything without music, I don’t like silence.”

Schultz lives in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, near gorgeous Wissahickon Park. For the last seven years, he has worked at the Sculpture Foundation and Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, doing several different jobs. For example, in 2006, he assisted sculptor Steven Seigel with his installation of permanent work at GFS. Schultz also creates and installs major traveling sculpture exhibitions for J. Seward Johnson. He also paints, and does stone and wood carving.

He knows it’s an old adage, but to Schultz, “One man’s trash is another person’s treasure,” he says. “I enjoy making art that makes people wonder why I made it. I like to evoke some kind of wonder in people, I like it when they make up their own stories.”

Art Exhibit, Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. “Discarded Visions,” an exhibit of assemblages by Eric Schultz. On view through Friday, December 11. Gallery hours are during school hours, or by appointment. Also visit www.eric-schultz.com. 609-924-7206 or www.chapinschool.org.

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