Having grown up in a house dominated by an artistic mother, I learned fast the difference (my mother saw) between art and craft. My mother sketched, painted, and practiced calligraphy. When she lost the use of her right hand to lymphedema after breast cancer treatment, she continued to sketch and later took up sculpture and pottery. At the time she was the only person I knew who could throw clay with one hand.
My art education did not suffer even though my family was quite poor. The Catholic schools I attended as a child were short on tolerance for childish behavior, but long on charity – and culture. We children regularly attended the symphony and theater, and we were made privy to the history behind the art and sculpture that gave St. Mary’s Cathedral it’s life, light, color, and texture. Right or wrong, by the time I was 10 years old I was well aware of what constituted art and the arts – and what didn’t.
There is a sculpture in front of the Print Media Academy in Heidelberg, Germany that recently caught my eye. At 13 meters high (42 feet), it is the world's largest equine sculpture. Its sculptor, Jürgen Goertz, named it “S-Printer Horse” for both sprinting and printing. It is made of stainless steel and aluminum.
I shared a picture of “S-Printer” with my sister, an art teacher, who thought it interesting that I would like this sculpture, but not a similar sculpture in our hometown. It isn’t that I liked “S-Printer” that much; I just thought it was an interesting construction of balance and theme. Plus, it’s really big! She was right to compare the two, though, because neither of them, in my mind, constitute art.
I was 11-years-old when I caught sight of John Kearney’s “Grandfather’s Horse.” I’d never seen anything like it and only saw it from a great distance on the way to and from my grandmother’s house. No one told me what it was made of or anything else about it. I was utterly fascinated by what appeared to be a contrast of many smooth, intensely reflective surfaces and jagged lines that absorbed light. It was very much as if it might just run away in a flurry of magic. I couldn't wait to touch it.
Before and after his tours in Vietnam, my Uncle Gary attended Wichita State University. After a few new sculptures arrived on campus, he invited the family on a tour. My mother was excited because there were several works of art on the grounds, as well as in the Ulrich Museum, she’d not seen. I was excited because this meant I was going to get to see that horse up close.
I could not have been more disappointed. When Ralphie, from A Christmas Story, realized the secret message he’d waited anxiously to decode was “just a crummy commercial,” I finally had a way to describe the utter disgust I felt when I got close enough to that horse to realize just how fantastic it wasn’t.
I thought it had been constructed out of pure light and some newly-fangled material made by an insane but kindly scientist. It was instead made out of something immediately recognizable to me: a car part.
As a child, specifically the child and grandchild of Mopar fanatics, cars ruled my world and I was none too happy about it. They were always breaking down, keeping us from getting to the park or to grandma's, and making my dad say things we were not allowed to repeat whenever he opened the hood or, worse, bonked his head on it.
Cars were not always getting fixed because there wasn’t a lot of money for parts, so sometimes they sat around making my parents look out the window with a mix of sadness and contempt. Cars had holes in the floor that had to be patched and re-patched so exhaust wouldn’t seep in. They caused my parents to fight, stunk to high heaven inside and out, and somehow never managed to get us kids to the A&W drive-in but once a year.
All that was sitting on my young heart the day I found out that what was initially a fascinating sight was nothing but a heap of other people's cars – no doubt, then, a pile of someone else’s sad, contempt-consumed memories.
I liked the recycling aspect of “Grandfather’s Horse,” and could even appreciate the time and effort behind it, as well as the irony of a horse being made out of pieces of a car. But that's when I decided the very idea of "found object sculpture" — even though I wouldn’t hear that phrase for a few more years — was the biggest crock of poo; the ultimate in bait and switch, if you will.
As a child, I thought the idea of making do-it-yourself 3-D jigsaw puzzles and passing it off as art was deceiving, and kind of mean. If small feats of engineering and clever applications of physics constitute art, then McDonald’s has it wrapped up with their myriad of indoor and outdoor playgrounds. As an adult, I will never have much more artistic appreciation for found object sculpture than I have for a recreation of the “Mona Lisa” done in toast.