Resurrecting art from the scrap heap Former graffiti artist now uses metal to create sculptured works of art

Staff Writer

By linda denicola

Resurrecting art from the scrap heap
Former graffiti artist now uses metal to create
sculptured works of art

PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ Richard Tierney’s “Angel Fish” sculpture decorates the outside of his home in the Leonardo section of Middletown.  PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ Richard Tierney’s “Angel Fish” sculpture decorates the outside of his home in the Leonardo section of Middletown.

For someone who just started sculpting four years ago, Richard Tierney, 37, is doing pretty well — although not quite well enough to give up his day job yet.

The Middletown resident, an iron worker by trade, has found on the job a more accepted medium for his artistry than the one he used as a young man growing up in Brooklyn.

"I found my artistic beginnings on various cement structures and the sides of subway trains," he said of his time spent as a graffiti artist, mostly in Bay Ridge.

"For the first two years that I was spray-painting, my tag was Fury," he added. "Then I changed it to Oz. For six years my tag was on buildings and trains all along the N, F, and R subway lines, in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. I used bubble and block letters and sometimes did cartoon art."

The artist peers through an opening in another sculpture titled “Faces.” The artist peers through an opening in another sculpture titled “Faces.”

Those roots show in the playful style and vibrant colors he uses for some of his pieces today.

While he no longer uses the sides of subway cars as his canvas, metal still plays a big role in his art. Today, his medium is salvaged material from construction sites.

For the past year, he has been working as a production supervisor for X Smith, a greenhouse manufacturer in Eatontown. "I’d love to just sculpt, but there are bills and health insurance," said the father of three girls, 12, 6 and 2 years old. "I’ve sold pieces, but not a big commission yet," he noted.

Each of his sculptures is based on his real-life experiences and has a little story behind it, Tierney said. His series of three stainless-steel pieces, called "Mother and Child," is based on his experience watching his wife with their three daughters. The last piece in the series stands on a pedestal at the Guild of Creative Art in Shrewsbury as part of the Sculptors Association of New Jersey Inc. exhibit.

The beautifully executed piece depicts a mother with one child in her arm and another holding her hand with a dog close by. While the subject may be well-tread ground, the expressive body language and exuberance of the work lift it above the ordinary.

Tierney seems to be amused by everything he sees or experiences. That sense of fun or absurdity is reflected in his metal sculptures, some of which are painted in bright, basic colors.

The artist said he started sculpting during a down time at a previous job. "I had been in an artistic mode for 20 years, but it took me until four years ago to find my medium. I was able to buy scrap metal from the company and found that the desire to work with fire and molten steel drives the life and creativity of my pieces," he said.

His imagination is always ready, he said, the excitement flashing in his light blue eyes. He starts with the steel pieces first, then comes up with the concept, sketches and design.

"I gather pieces and put them in a box. They are all different shapes. After I’ve collected enough pieces, I lay them out on the dining room table and arrange them and rearrange them over time," he explained.

He said he’s not sure how he developed the technique, but it has become a constant in his work.

"I’m guided by something I can’t explain. It’s like spirit, or inspiration. Something is guiding me. I can do it in the midst of chaos. It is all unplanned, an accident. A happy accident," he said.

Whatever accidents lead to the ideas for his pieces, it is Tierney’s skill as a welder that allows him to fulfill his vision. "I know how to weld different kinds of steel," he noted. "I don’t paint the stainless steel pieces. I polish them into various patterns, and I run the grain in different ways. In the sunlight I can make steel shine like a diamond."

Some of his pieces, like the whimsical wall hanging that resembles the sun with a happy face, called "All Eyes on You," are painted with a basic palette of red, yellow and blue. "For economic reasons, I use a basic palette and enamel paint that I get at Home Depot or Sears," Tierney said.

"I use enamel paint so that they will hold up outside. These days, I’m making them lighter so that they are easier to take to shows. You get smarter as you go along," he added.

According to Tierney, each piece takes 100 to 150 hours to complete. "I do a lot of hand sanding. I like to see people running their hand over a piece so that they can see by touching all of the work that goes into making them so smooth to the touch," he said.

Tierney is the assistant director of the Sculptors Association of New Jersey Inc. (SANJ). "The Sculptors Association promotes excellence in sculpture in a wide variety of mediums," he said.

Tierney also is an exhibiting member of the guild where SANJ is holding an exhibition through Feb. 1.

Along with his smaller pieces he has two large pieces in the show, one a man with a cigarette in one hand and a martini, complete with olive, in the other. He calls the piece "Martini Cowboy."

The other, called "Drink and Dice," is a story-piece depicting a bar setting.

Tierney said he joined the guild two years ago. "I was looking for a place to show my work. I had completed 20 pieces and knew I was ready to exhibit. But it’s not easy to become an exhibiting member of the guild," he said. "I had to show seven pieces and was very surprised when they were accepted. There were so many people there that day who were not allowed to become exhibiting members."

A piece called "A Day in the Park" was recently purchased. "The collector saw it at a guild show and came to my house," Tierney said. "She purchased that piece and two others."

He also was commissioned to do a piece for the Evolve Gallery in Rumson, where he has two or three pieces hanging in the outdoor sculpture garden.

Tierney’s work also may be seen at the Oakland Street Gallery in Red Bank and in the front yard of his house on Florence Avenue.

Tierney said his goal is to be commissioned to make larger pieces, especially corporate or public art. He has a small studio in his garage and fabricates in the driveway. "Most of my finished pieces are on a small scale, but I would like to be commissioned to make larger pieces, using the smaller ones as the model," he said.

It is obvious that he has been influenced by Alexander Calder, one of his favorite artists. Calder, one of the best-known sculptors of the 20th century, has been called a magician who transmuted the most ordinary pieces into art. While Calder worked with all kinds of material, Tierney works with only metal. Whether large or small, Tierney’s work, like Calder’s, is humorous, mischievous and expressive.

Anyone interested in purchasing his work may call him at (732) 291-5737.