Chesterfield sculptor James Kitchen opens new exhibit

Last modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013
James Kitchen says he’s interested in many topics — history, environmentalism, science and of course art — but more than anything he likes to look for the connections between things: between art and science, between people and ideas, between past and present.

It’s that last connection that’s particularly inspired Kitchen. For more than a decade, the Chesterfield artist has earned praise for the way he welds old bits of farming equipment, industrial machinery, and other iron and metal scraps together to create inventive sculptures — often on a massive scale — that are paeans to humor, history and his own restless, creative energy.

This week, Kitchen opens an exhibit that explores the interplay of a new set of ideas. “Universal Connections,” at Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield, features more than two dozen sculptures, each one representing a different academic field, from law to philosophy to marketing to engineering.

It’s the first time he’s exhibited any of his large pieces at a college, Kitchen says, and he’s seized on it as an opportunity to look at the way he’s incorporated ideas from different academic disciplines in his work.

“We all tend to be locked into our compartments, our way of looking at things,” said Kitchen in a recent interview, holding his hands together in front of his eyes to simulate a telescope. “You know, a kind of tunnel vision, in academia and in other areas. ... I like to try and break down those barriers, to see where things can overlap.”

The Western New England show, which runs through May 18, is centered around one of Kitchen’s larger pieces of recent years, “Einstein’s Onion,” a swirling mix of curved, intersecting rods and bands and a huge, soaring arrow. Kitchen was inspired to create the 9-foot sculpture after reading a biography of Albert Einstein, seeing the artwork as a way to symbolize the mysteries of the universe and the landmark theories the famous scientist developed.

Many of the exhibit’s other pieces are of more modest size, though a few stand as tall as the 6-foot-5-inch Kitchen, and they all display the artist’s trademark sense of humor and appeal to emotion. For the university’s marketing department, he’s offered “Business Card Holder,” a simple, humanoid half-figure whose “arms” are attached to a flat surface that’s ideal for holding, well, business cards.

“Linear and out the other,” crafted for the engineering department, consists of a circular iron band mounted on a vertical rod attached to a pedestal. Inside the circle is a wild melange of rods, valve control wheels, a tractor belt and other old industrial artifacts, which evoke the crazy-quilt look of a Rube Goldberg machine.

“You think there’s a purpose to it, but it doesn’t actually do anything,” he said. “It’s like Congress.”

The exhibit came at the suggestion of WNEU’s president, Anthony Caprio, who read about Kitchen’s work and talked with other school officials about having his art brought to campus. Beverly Dwight, the university’s vice president of advancement, contacted Kitchen last fall and asked him about doing a show.

“He brings so much to the table,” Dwight said. “There are so many pieces to what he does — history, physics, recycling, the way he finds a way to reuse all these old materials ... that kind of cross-discipline approach to learning is what we try to stress here.”

The WNEU show consists of both newer and older pieces by Kitchen; he says he designed about half the sculptures specifically for the exhibit, while the rest were older pieces that he felt dovetailed nicely as symbols for certain areas of study.

At a ceremony this week at WNEU to unveil “Einstein’s Onion,” Caprio presented Kitchen with a variation on an honorary diploma: a handsome document labeled “Artistic License.”

“Wow,” Kitchen said with a laugh. “Just like the scarecrow in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — he got a piece of paper that said ‘university degree,’ and suddenly he was smart.”

Tapping the subconscious

Though Kitchen, 59, has a day job supervising the installation of modular homes in the Northeast, you’d never know it from his prolific sculpting output. He says he spends as much time on his artwork as he can spare from his job and family responsibilities, working weekends and nights with a welding torch in his outdoor workshop, where he stores hundreds of scraps collected from junkyards, farmers’ barns and other places.

He rarely begins a sculpture with any specific sense of what it might look like; he likes to let the design evolve, trusting that ideas and inspiration will percolate to the surface. “Subconscious thought makes up 90 percent of our brain activity,” he said. “That’s a great source for me.”

A favorite at Northampton’s Paradise City Arts Festival, Kitchen is also known for his big-with-a-capital-B sculptures — the kind that must be lowered in place by a crane. Consider “Birdicus Gigantium,” his 35-foot-tall bird that won an award at Paradise City last year as the best piece of outdoor art, and which is also displayed in downtown Springfield, as are many of his other works.

A few years ago he also unveiled “Saturn,” a 3,000-pound monster fashioned from old wrenches, ice tongs, scissors, vice grips and thousands of other old tools and bits of iron and metal. His version of the solar system’s second-largest planet took him five years to make.

These days Kitchen’s also excited about some future big pieces he’ll display in Springfield. He’s working with two nonprofit groups, Spirit of Springfield and DevelopSpringfield, on downtown sculptures commemorating both 9/11 and the tornado that hit the city in June 2011. He hopes to complete those projects within a year and two years, respectively.

He envisions the 9/11 project as a giant sundial, using an 8-foot I-beam that Springfield obtained from the wreckage of the World Trade Center; the beam would be angled to cast shadows on a platform imprinted with signature times, like 8:46 a.m., the moment when the first hijacked airplane crashed into the North Tower of the trade center.

Kitchen also is working on an 18-foot sculpture that will be placed by the new Springfield headquarters that WFCR-FM of Amherst is constructing. “Day’s End,” a human-like figure bent over from a day of hard work, will hopefully be in place by the end of May, Kitchen said.

Kitchen’s a musician as well — he plays guitar and banjo in an acoustic band, James Kitchen and the Appliances — and he jokes that he sometimes feels like the performer he saw on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show” when he was a kid, a man who could keep a dozen plates spinning at a time, several on top of long poles.

“I’ve discovered that at my age, when there’s so many things I want or have to do, time management becomes the greatest challenge,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

James Kitchen’ “Universal Connections” will be on view at Western New England University through May 18. Most of the exhibit’s pieces will be in the art gallery in the St. Germain Campus Center, which is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be an opening reception for the exhibit at the gallery this Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. Kitchen will also give a talk about his work on April 25 at 7 p.m. in room 100 in Sleith Hall at the university.