The sculpture of Eric Schultz often elicits a warm happy feeling in the viewer. His characters, made from rusted old parts, embody pathos and personality. So it is surprising to hear the artist say he is stressed out. What stresses him? “Being an artist, the lack of money… life,” he says, with a perpetual smile.
During the summer there was an incident that posed a great deal of stress for Schultz, as well as three not-for-profit organizations, Trenton residents and police, and even Mayor Eric Jackson. A public art project Schultz had worked on — a collaboration between Grounds For Sculpture, HomeFront kids, and Isles — was taken down 20 hours after it was installed in a vacant city-owned lot at the corner of Perry and Montgomery streets.
The sculpture — shaped in shiny stainless steel like a giant hand giving the OK symbol — raised concerns that it resembled a gang symbol. After gang members posed with it, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson said he wanted to be careful about the message the sculpture sent to city residents, and that it would need to be relocated off city property (though the city had given consent for the garden to include sculpture by these kids).
“Our intent was completely innocent,” says Schultz, who was hired to teach a class to kids through HomeFront. “In eight classes they learned to use tools to build something and had a great time. We went through different hand signs, and they chose the ‘OK’ sign because it’s universal. Little did I know it means other things.
“It was the right place at the wrong time,” says Schultz, pointing out that it happened around the same time as the violent and tragic clash in Charlottesville over the removal of Confederate sculpture. “It was at a time when our country was questioning public art. People were angry that we had to take it down.”
Grounds For Sculpture is now seeking private landowners for the sculpture, says Schultz. “We didn’t do anything wrong, and the kids’ work deserves to be seen. I don’t look for confrontation in art — I usually stay away from public art for that reason.”
Those who want to appreciate Schultz’s work, with all his humor, clever engineering, and how he embodies rusted metal with human personality can see “Mechanical Moments: Sculpture by Eric Schultz” at Morpeth Contemporary Gallery in Hopewell opening Saturday, September 30, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit continues through October 21.
The exhibit includes “Eating Green in the Garden State,” a green-colored conductor with watch fob at his waist on a lunch break, biting into a ciabatta sandwich fabricated from a snow shovel folded in half. The torso was once an old green toolbox. When you view the conductor, you don’t see several hundred pounds of scavenged metal, but rather a worker who has put in his time and is really savoring that bite.
“It’s taken me years to make the micro-macro shift, where you see the image and not the parts,” says Schultz, 41, whose studio is in the Motor Exhibits Building at Grounds For Sculpture. “If I had a nickel for every time someone says ‘I have one of those (parts) at my house, will you come and get it…’”
Schultz, who was born in Trenton and lives in Hopewell with his partner, Lindsay Young Lockett, the registrar at Grounds For Sculpture, has a carefully organized system for the parts he scavenges. There are bins for tools, chains, washers, screws. “For what I do I have to have organization,” he says. Objects are sorted by size and color and put into appropriate bins. He used to dumpster dive for parts, but now that his reputation has grown, people give him all the rusty scraps he needs. “My mom jokes that I’m the boon of wives and hated by husbands.”
He often uses the parts just as they come to him. “I’ll scrub it if it’s gross, but I don’t have an aversion to dirt.” Indeed patterns of rust and aging are what give the metal its patina. What’s important to Schultz in putting together, say, a scorpion from chain saw blades — the tongue is aluminum flashing — is that all the parts have the same tone of rust, the same degree of aging.
For his work “Gilgamesh,” it took 20 years to find uniformly rusted pieces.
“Don’t Be a Party Pooper” was inspired by a picture of a man partying with a lampshade on his head, found in an old newspaper. Someone gave Schultz the lampshade, and it led to the creation of this character with spectacles, a fringe-y mustache, a tie askew, and a bottle of Jack Daniels. His torso is made from a washing machine housing with gauges for coin operation. Even though the character comes across, a viewer can also admire the level of detail in lovingly curated parts: the nose from a drawer pull, the tea kettle head, the crystal chandelier eyes with brass hoods.
Born at Helene Fuld Medical Center, Schultz moved around a lot, from West Windsor to places in Pennsylvania: Doylestown, Lewisburg. “I’ve moved 40 times,” he estimates. While visiting his paternal grandmother in Hopewell, he had swum in the quarry — not far from where he lives today. His parents — a mechanic and a nurse — divorced when he was 2. “I got my mechanical skills from my father. I would mess with him in the garage. He’s a fix-it guy.”
Schultz’s dad is also a musical guy who plays classical guitar. Schultz’s paternal grandmother, Gladys, who lives at Windrows, was a country music singer who performed at Hillbilly Hall and the East Country Coast Music Hall in Vineland. “I also get my anxiety from Dad.”
Schultz’s mother, Margaret Dacres, wrote songs, plays, and played guitar in the Trenton area — and provided him with spirit, he says. She taught him to sing and make music in public (he played violin as a child) and inspired him to come up with stories behind the sculpted characters. She worked extra shifts as a nurse to put him in art classes — private lessons in drawing, painting, and art fundamentals.
Eric is the oldest of three sisters and a brother in what he terms his family shrub — both parents remarried and had multiple families with mixed cultural heritages. When the whole family gets together, many languages are spoken.
Schultz has been at it since he was 15. His first sculpture was a dragonfly made of aluminum flashing and washing machine parts. He remembers going to the Smithsonian with his mother and seeing the mechanical sculptures of 20th century Swiss artist Jean Tinguely and thinking, “I want to be him.”
He attended Governors School of Arts in Erie, Pennsylvania, and earned a bachelor’s of fine arts from Tyler School of the Arts in Philadelphia. For his senior thesis he made a spaceship, which began with research, sketches, and drawing. He remembers late hours, not sleeping and, while working on it for two months in a dangerous part of Germantown, going to a bar and having someone comment, “You kids have too much time on your hands. What’s that, the mother ship?”
When the project was complete he drove to Tyler and installed it in a field, telling no one. He got the janitors to run an electric line, digging a trench in the middle of the night. It had smoke machines and music. When his teacher learned about it, he’d said “‘Eric, it had better not be you…’”
By the time of his senior thesis, Schultz estimates, he had completed 200 found object artworks (now in his parents’ collection). Many of these were insects. “Bugs rule the earth,” he says. “They are in charge. And a lot of metal parts lend themselves to making an exo-skeleton.”
He got his first big break when, after making foam props for winter shows, he got a job as a carpenter for J. Seward Johnson Jr. when he was traveling with his Icons Revisited show. “I was in a car accident on the way to the interview and was super late, but they needed a carpenter/jack of all trades and hired me.” When the show stopped traveling, Schultz worked as a preparator for Grounds For Sculpture, installing, taking down, crating, and chipping. These days he does that work for sculptor Harry Gordon, who has a business moving and installing sculpture.
In 2006 Schultz created a large-scale outdoor work using a VW Bug for the Garden State Discovery Museum that was permanently installed atop its main entrance.
He still paints and draws “but it’s stuff no one has seen.” He makes sketches for work or to vent his emotions, though the sketch is often done in chalk in two seconds. But mostly he has given up works on paper or flat surfaces because “this stuff sells — it’s more of a unique niche.”
Both parents are big fans now, though they do occasionally ask “What are you going to do with all this crap?”
The difference between a collector and a hoarder, says Schultz, is “I get rid of things. I don’t bring it in to keep, but to make things and recycle the parts, giving it a new life. I enjoy the hustle of selling people their own trash.”
If someone commissions a work out of their own trash, he will do it — there are, for example, people who may give him garden tools from which to make a praying mantis — but mostly “I have a vision of what I want to communicate with the objects. And as long as what they give me goes back into sculpture, even if not their particular sculpture, they are happy with a photo of the final resting place for their junk.”
“Sleeping Giant” — the work is 16-by-8 feet — is made from a lot of stuff, including his mother’s sewing machine.
Spending time with Schultz, one remembers that kid in school who was fun to make mischief with. “I was a bender of rules on occasion but not a rebel. I would rather make someone laugh than be shocked,” he says. “A lot of artists are overly serious about what they make. I’m interested in the depth, but it’s rare that I make something so serious.”
Mechanical Moments: Sculpture by Eric Schultz, Morpeth Contemporary Gallery, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell. Opening Saturday, September 30, 6 to 8 p.m. To Saturday, October 21. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday to 5 p.m. 609-333-9393 or morpethcontemporary.com.