photographs by Mark Petko
When Raleigh’s Artspace studio challenged 50 artists to create works from a box of mystery materials in a limited amount of time, Paris Alexander raised his hand.
The sculptor – a maker of monumental public art collected by individuals like President Bill Clinton and institutions like WakeMed hospital, Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, and SAS Institute – knows how to work under constraints.
He knows how to work without a lot of time, due to his many rolling commissions, shows, and teaching commitments. He knows how to work without a lot of resources, due to an orphaned New York City childhood that demanded he teach himself everything from art to getting by. And he knows how to make art that’s uniquely his own out of what he has on hand, due to the alchemy he regularly performs on the blocks of sandstone that become finely carved figurative and abstract sculpture in his hands.
So the Artspace Mystery Create competition – a fundraiser to benefit the studio’s summer scholarship fund that will result in an April 5 show and online auction – didn’t seem too tall a task, and certainly worth the time to help kids get scholarships for summer art classes, he said. Conducted in partnership with Jeremy Maronpot and Roger Flake, creators of the Mystery Build Art Contest for artists everywhere (www.mysterybuild.com), the Artspace contest’s spirit of intrigue, friendly competition, and philanthropic results made for an appealing opportunity.
So Alexander said yes, and he invited Walter along for the creative ride. To see what was in the box before he started, to tell us what he thought about what he found there, and to keep in touch as he turned that random assortment of stuff into art.
What follows is a diary of sorts: From start…to art.
Jan. 29 Alexander, 49, invites WALTER to his studio as he gets his first look inside the box. A handful of dowels, plaster, boards, rope, and wires. Each artist has, in addition to this common set (no one piece of which they are required to use), one unique, “must-use” mystery ingredient, pulled at random from a giant box. Alexander’s is a spool of silvery-gold thread.
As he looks inside the box, Alexander is nonplussed. Is he inspired by what he sees? The very question is off, he explains. His art will not come from the materials, he says, it will come from his imagination. The materials will be manipulated to serve the vision he has.
A sculpture of a head, perhaps, made from the plaster, on some sort of towering pedestal. It’s the kind of thing he has been making a lot lately, reflecting one of his most recurrent themes: the inevitability of death. “The sudden death of my brother Blaise when I was 17 was, without a doubt, the most profound and shocking realization of the fragility of life, and my quest for visually exploring the meaning of Memento Mori,” he says. Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that literally means “remember that you will die,” and a term for artistic symbols that deliver this message. Alexander groups many of his works under this designation and seems ready to add another work to the series.
The spool of thread seems like a lucky stroke, he says. He pictures using it to tie the thing down, Gulliver-style.
Two weeks later; nothing yet
Feb. 14 Alexander hasn’t begun. Work on four separate commissions (including carving lettering on to the side of the new Justice Center downtown), a series of lectures, classes, museum demonstrations and family life (he and his wife have two young children) have kept him busy.
“I know everyone would like to hear about an artist struggling away for weeks on this kind of thing, but not only is that kinda unrealistic for a full-time artist who is supporting their family… it’s not really my style anyway,” he wrote in an email. “My style for such endeavors is more along the lines of coming in here, and spending a few real late nights, lots of music, and seeing where it all takes me. You see…there is rarely a moment that I am not thinking about, doing, or planning on creating art. I rely on my own intuition to make it happen.
“I intend on making a work that will in some way express all those things that I find inexpressible, because that’s what drew me to art, saying the things I can’t seem to articulate. Art for me is a language of its own, and I strive to be poetic with these visual expressions. If I fail to make it ‘happen,’ I will destroy it and make another. It’s kinda like a fight, either I knock it out or it knocks me out, then I get up and go to the next fight.”
A shift occurs
Feb. 23 “Things have taken a turn with the work,” he reports. “I am going down the road of a self-portrait of sorts, but the twist is the self-portrait is of my hand.”
Feb. 24 The box’s limited materials mean he will have to think smaller, he realizes.
“After thinking and starting to map out my original intention of using a head as a sleeper/dreamer, I thought more of the scale I was working with. Scale with these works is paramount… I had to be careful, because they only supplied a small amount of plaster with the mystery box, and I could easily wind up with a doll-size head that would seam a bit of an incidental gimmick. So my thoughts went to a hand.
“I have been a bit obsessed with hands for a couple of decades, I guess. I began to use the hand in works years ago, partly in response to having viewers interpret a figurative sculpture solely on what they observe in the face: happy, sad, male, female, or ethnicity.
“The hand can be incredibly expressive and still be an empathetic entity. After all, most of us have them, and usually even two. In a sense this is a model to the ritual of being an artist: My mind thinks, but my hands create. I will probably call this Portrait of an Artist in the Making, or some such abbreviation.”
March 7 “I apologize for taking it down to the wire,” he says, one day before deadline. “I still have so much going on, and it has been arduous working outside in this weather, pounding on granite on the side of a building. No fun at all.
“So the mystery build project. Still needs all the finishing work, guide wires, partial draping, scaffolding, to project the look of constructive deconstruction, if there is such a thing. That is what I am looking to achieve with these types of pieces: The mystery of …an ambiguous object being either created or dismantled, or perhaps just caught in a state of static decay.
“As for the challenge of using a certain set of materials, it really hasn’t inhibited me much. The question was for me in the beginning: Do I approach the challenge in some very specific way, such as using every bit of material (which I did have a cheeky escape plan for if needed: That was to simply take the whole box of material and set it on fire, take the ash, soot and carbon fragments and compress them into a small cube).
“I opted, however, to just do what it is I do, and use that which was useful…
“Imagination isn’t some thing one has to work at bringing out. In many ways it’s some thing you’re usually taught to suppress, to better fit the norm. I was a big daydreamer, and still am, and so are my children. My 8-year-old girl Phoebe draws, paints and sculpts by herself for hours, and my 2½-year-old boy Odin will jump in surprise if I walk up on him while he’s playing.
“I am still toying with the name for this work. Last night I was convinced it would be Dead Man Walking. Might still be, though I don’t want to elicit nonsense.
“My original intention was Self Portrait of an Artist. I will have to see.”
March 11 “I have put the whole work under a glass dome, to protect it from over-explorative fingers, and because I like the display value that such presentations add to works, not only adding a precious quality, but also invoking the museum displays I remember so much from the Museum of Natural History in New York. Where as a kid I was so fascinated by all of the specimen jars which held such mysterious and foreign objects…I hope views will peer into mine and wonder what’s going on.
“There are several hidden-in-plain-sight type of entities that don’t really show up in this image, such as two little portrait heads of my children tucked under my hand, in my own little temple near the top. Then the small packages, or wrapped forms, dangling like chrysalis from the rigging, are rather frequent effigies in my sculptures. I even made life-size ones one time for an exhibition. “Oh, by the way, my mystery object spool of thread I put to good and obvious use.”
Paris Alexander’s work of art, and those of his 49 competitors, will be shown on April 5 at Artspace as part of April’s First Friday gallery walk. They will be auctioned online on Ebay on that date. For more information, go to