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Interview with Sculptor Steve Farris

Have you picked up your copy of the May Happy Valley Newsletter?

In this month’s newsletter, we learned more about 2017 Sculpture Garden participant Steve Farris. Want to know more about Steve? We did too! To answer all your questions, check out his interview below!

What is your earliest memory about art or creating art?

SF: My absolute earliest memory of art that sticks in my mind is sometime in early grade school when I was told to create something out of clay. I remember making an elephant head with ears and a trunk but no tusks. The thing that sticks in my mind was how easy it seemed at the time and how proud I was of the end result. I also remember clearly that no one else seemed to share my delight in the sculpture. My first experience with artistic rejection (not my last).

When did you know that you wanted to become an artist?

SF: I have always made crafts of some kind and enjoyed learning new and different skills. I particularly liked creating with wood and metal. But it wasn’t until 1991 when my wife (also a sculptor and was always an artist) sold some of our pieces to the Backyard Bird Store in Lake Oswego and got orders for more that I realized that I could get paid to create new things. Before that, I thought that being an artist was out of my reach. After that, I knew beyond a doubt that I would be making art whenever I could until I got too old or feeble.

What themes or concepts inspire your artistic style?

SF: When I looked hard at being an artist, I started studying art history and works from other artists. My strongest influences were artists like Calder and Brancusi because of the strong lines and simple shapes of their works. I had spent years working in the commercial fishing industry as a fisherman, diver, boat builder, mechanic, designer, inventor, engineer, captain, consultant, and finally researcher and ROV (remotely operated vehicle) operator. Building boats was my introduction to creating fluid three-dimensional shapes with steel, which I have carried over to my art. It’s not hard to look at some of my works and see the resemblance to the curved bow-shape of a classic commercial fishing craft.

How has your artistic style changed over time?

SF: When I first began creating, I used recycled metal and objects almost exclusively. This had more to do with the high cost of new material than anything else, but I enjoyed the challenge of working with re-purposed items. It became easy to let the material guide the art, and my style reflected that.

When I finally decided that I was good enough to work with new materials, my style became more free and flowing, and my later pieces reflect that change. Also, when I started out, my wife and I were selling wholesale to stores around the area which constrained my art to repetitive designs. When I began to sell at art and craft shows around the area, I was able to broaden my style and started to respond to the feedback from people at the shows. Interacting with the other artists and following their creative work also was an influence and forced me to look at my work with new eyes.

It was when I started doing big shows in Seattle and San Francisco that I realized that there was an audience for my larger works and I was totally free to create anything I could conceive.

What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?

SF: My advice to an aspiring artist is the same as to an aspiring writer: Get to work. If you want to be an artist – make art. Draw, Paint, Sculpt, or whatever presents itself. Don’t worry about the accumulated rejections or the lack of money. The only way to become an artist is to work. I think presenting your work at art shows gets feedback that can help someone become commercially successful. But not always. It’s easier to get into an art show than to get into a gallery show, and it can expose you to more artists and art than going to a thousand museums. There is a lot of beautiful art and talented working artists at art shows.

Tell me About Orbe Abrégé!

SF: First, you have to understand that I have never lacked for new directions for my work. When people ask me “where do you get your ideas” I have to explain that getting new ideas is not my problem. It is much more difficult for me to restrain myself to only one project at a time. Whenever I build a piece, I constantly find myself thinking, “Wait, what if I…” and suddenly re-imagining the sculpture in a new light. My challenge is to reign myself in and complete the work. This is not a unique problem for artists.

Keeping all that in mind, I will explain the evolution of Orbe Abrégé. Back when I was first starting to play around with making a living creating art, I was working as a fabricator for various Portland area architects and designers, and I got interested in designing and building furniture for the annual Table, Lamp and Chair competition. Since I didn’t have a lot of money, I used scrap iron and my designs were pretty austere.

One of my end table designs had a base similar in shape to the base of Orbe, although only 3 feet tall and with gaps between the slats. The table base was not symmetrical but was designed to swoop out from the wall slightly. This was my first experiment with asymmetrical shapes. Something I have returned to over the years but never very successfully.

Skip ahead a few years and I was making garden art from recycled materials when I started making large vase-shaped sculpture from large diameter pipes and used metal tanks. I was involved in pushing my designs to the limits of what I could make when I was working on a smaller (4 ft) piece, forcing it into the shape of a wine glass with a narrow stem and a bell-shaped top. I realized that the piece would look better without the bell-top, and as soon as I finished that piece, I began working on a shape that just resembled the stem. It took me several tries to get a shape I was happy with.

I prefer to work out the construction of a new piece in my head before I begin the actual construction. When I am actually building the sculpture, I am often working on the next piece in my head. This means that I usually have several “mental” projects going on at the same time. I began building the base for Orbe in my head while I was working on a smaller version of the wine glass stem shape (unsuccessfully) and figured out a new construction method radically different from the approach that I was using. I wasn’t sure the new construction method would work, so I refined it by building the piece over and over in my mind until I had every step figured out.

When I finally began the actual construction, I had built it so many times in my head that the project went pretty quickly. I had pictured the piece with an angled top with the slats spread to increase the drama of the form. I worked the top for weeks but never really got it to look right. At that point I put it away and went to work on another one.

The second one I had pictured as a completely symmetrical version of the first, with longer slats and more of a spread at the top. I was using the mental image of the shape of the splash of a water droplet into a pond when photographed with a high-speed camera.

This piece came out perfect. Just exactly as I had visualized it. So, I put it out in my yard and contemplated what I had created. After a few days I realized that the piece looked incomplete. It looked unfinished and somehow stunted.

After imagining several different tops to the piece, I decided that a sphere would look great on top if it was different in design but somehow complemented the construction of the base. I worked out the right proportion to my eye and began construction of a wire frame sphere to use as a mold.

As I was building the mold, I came up with the idea of making the sphere with short rods in a random pattern. I could get an organic feeling by working the pattern so that each rod became two and then each of those became two and so on. I could visualize the whole thing in my mind very clearly: symmetrical base with an asymmetrical sphere on top. In order to accentuate the randomness, I decided to leave a portion of the sphere open with a ragged unfinished feeling.

When I placed the sphere on top of the base, it immediately looked like a finished sculpture and required very little work to complete.

I lived with the piece for a few weeks before adding the solar lights, which made it glow slightly when it was extremely dark outside. This was my first sculpture with any kind of added lighting. But not my last.

The evolution of this piece during construction has guided my work in new directions and I still consider it one of my most important sculptures. It is also one of my favorite pieces. I like it because of the finished shape and way that symmetry is followed closely in the base but broken down in the sphere. And yet the two pieces of the sculpture complement each other and both would look incomplete without the other.

The City thanks Mr. Farris for his contribution to the Sculpture Garden. Orbe Abrégé has been on exhibit outside of City Hall since July 2017 and will remain through June 2019. For questions and purchasing inquiries, please contact Jaimie Huff, 503-783-3828, jaimiel@happyvalleyor.gov.