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Iron Man

by Alan Barta


Across Mineral Spring Avenue from the Lorraine Mills stands a complex of nondescript Civil War brick. The parking lot expands behind into a veritable menagerie of giant abstract creatures sculpted in massive plate steel outside the industrial studio of Donald Gerola.

Don’s pieces range from intimate atrium accents to monumental monsters upward of 40 feet. The bigger ones move, prodded by breezes into gentle acrobatics, depending upon the size of the moving element. Giant rotors gracefully pivot, pinwheels twirl, weather vanes steer windward, and massive arcs waver almost imperceptibly. Their motions are asynchronous, each part doing its own thing, like cats or people. This may not seem so impressive until you consider that one rotor weighs as much as a small car with a skinny passenger. You can only estimate the overall weight in tonnage.

Ordinarily, sculpture is about stasis, a form gracefully occupying a single space over time. All of Gerola’s works are about movement. Movement fascinates. People pay hundreds to watch athletes run or cars race, pay thousands to race themselves and watch scenery flash by. Even in his static sculptures there’s a sense of flow, rhythm, struggle, twist and turn; they seem to sprout from the very ground and reach toward heaven. The kinetic pieces play in the wind. Elementals are always represented, whether the metal itself, formed in fire, or its reaction to wind and water, or set on stones or timbers or next to tree lines. Encouraged to rust though initial chemical treatment then left to oxidize, they form a unique patina reminiscent of rust belt rejects or steel yard wrecks, so South side exposure to direct sunlight looks different than North side. Consequently, they present a unique appearance every time you see them, never quite the same, possessing an amorphous quality. Some even flash lasers, shoot flames or spray fluids. This reminds people that they too are part of nature, made of air, sunlight, stone and water.

Kinetic art was invented in 1913 when Marcel Duchamp stuck a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool. This “happy idea” of combining “ready made” objects sprung from Duchamp’s absence of taste, or as he put it, “visual indifference… a complete anesthesia.” Bicycle wheels can be inspirational, made with fragile components harmoniously united for strength. They spin hypnotically. Duchamp said this calmed him, but not necessarily his critics. “A work of art is not complete without viewers asking questions.”

So can be said of Gerola’s sculptures. His abstract, modernist objects startle, then take on a life of their own in your mind. Kinetics have been realized by scores of important artists, notably Alex Calder. Gerola isn’t interested in duplicating anyone else’s work, nor even his own. “Representational art of animals, figures, mountains have already been explored thoroughly; I get my inspiration from what I don’t see, influenced by nature and senses. Things in nature are casual, imperfect, and wonderful.”

Apart from Gerola, who studied Physics at University of Dayton, Ohio, few artists function on such an advanced level. Seldom is sculpture pursued from a balanced perspective, one equally influenced by eastern philosophy, technical knowhow, and western discipline. Indifference be damned, Gerola’s work gets you to look and think attentively. During three decades of recognition, Gerolas have headlined Art Expos, garden shows, juried publications, museum exhibitions, and sculpture gardens including Boston’s ICA, The National Gallery,and Springfield Musem. He has several installed in Providence along Hope Street; the kinetic at Waterplace Park is his, as it the one at the Courthouse Center just past URI on Ri-138. Pawtucket has one at the Slater Mill and owns another in Slater Park. RI PBS ran a half hour profile on him. Your initial admiration grows when you consider in full what you’re seeing.

Steel is a curious medium, as confrontational as it is utilitarian. With it they build bicycles, bridges, jetliners and vehicles for commerce and communication, as well as weapons to destroy. There a literal shortage of it nationwide, after exporting all scrap to foreign smelters. Steel abused or misused is ghastly. Don knows this better than most. His mentor/stepfather was the Chief Engineer of Materials for the fallen World Trade Center. Better to beat sharp swords into rusty plowshares. Working in wood or textiles is much easier than the same material used to cut both, only up to 5″ thick. But how do you imbue steel with whimsy? Takes a lot of imagination and skill, a multidisciplinary background, and a couple decades of your life.

Creating sculpture is an esoteric and gritty enterprise. You almost never see a piece being made, still jagged from months of cutting, grinding and welding, before its surface is painted or treated to pay homage to its intended site. Unlike Duchamps’ first kinetic almost a century ago, not one segment of a Gerola is from “found” material. Each is individually CAD drawn, extravagantly cut from native, virgin hot rolled plate, then painstakingly fitted and welded.

Each arrives through his “process”, as he calls it. All start as an inspiration from nature, whether horses galloping, human limbs exercising, meandering curves of a river, organic forms of craning bird necks or flowing grasses, or sinuously twisting tree branches and roots. Some of his best forms resemble creatures, grasses or trees stretching from earth to embrace sky. Subconsciously, he fuses these into a singular manifestation, which resurfaces as a two dimensional drawing.

From drawing, a working model is constructed. Over the course of months each model is tested and altered so it reliably performs. Then high tech bearings and virgin hot rolled steel of varying widths are purchased. “No scrap metal is used,” Don says, “You can’t find these forms lying around in a junkyard.” A computer assisted design (CAD) file is developed for the high intensity gas and laser cutting machines to follow. Each small segment is laid out and individually welded. Usually, wherever there is a weld, a thinner piece is joined to a thicker one, which creates a bas relief not immediately noticed but enjoyed as sunlight shifts slowly over its surface. Then welds are laboriously ground by hand and surfaces finished like jewelry, although at least 10,000 times more substantial, some priced for about the same as a decent diamond. Objects for indoor atriums are sometimes sprayed in brilliant catalytic paints and many clear coats, something usually reserved for the most expensive exotic cars or motorcycles. Outdoor pieces are allowed, in part or total, to form a leathery scale which stabilizes after a few years and leaves underlying material integral for centuries to come.

All self funded, the most complicated one has over 100 components and took over $100,000 and a solid year of intense effort to fabricate. They make locomotives and submarines this way, but that’s with thousands of workers and tax dollars, not one guy paying a few infrequent helpers. With each such a huge personal investment, it doesn’t seem that he’ll be making any more soon except upon commission.

Gerola then lends them to cities, colleges, corporate campuses, museums, and parks, anywhere there’s an ideal spot. Yet it takes gatekeepers forever to say yes. Engineered to last forever, unburdened by typical weight bearing loads, what is there to fear? Yet installations cost him money he no longer has to spend.

“Siting a piece is especially important,” Don explains. “Each wants to occupy a site in its own way, to sing its own song, turned to compliment scene, face sun, settle into weather of its micro-climate. Sacred spots are ideal, a combination of prominence, sun, surf, suitable wind strength.” Different rotors present different operating requirements, designed for light breezes, or mountain updrafts, or steady shoreline winds. Pieces need to stand out from a distance, draw you in to impress you with their intimidating presence up close. They belong in national parks, or to have parks built around them, destinations in themselves. None takes anything from nature; they do not exploit, but respond merrily to the right environment, a timely message humans might take away from viewing them.

Although collectors and curators would like to divvy up Gerola’s catalog, the hope is that some foundation might acquire a major portion and tour it around college and corporate campuses here and abroad. “They need to be where students can see them and be inspired.” The 300 or so pieces not yet in private collections are spread on loan from Maryland to Maine, but the nicest kinetics are nearby for the time being. Cost of moving a multi-ton steel sculpture as tall as a house isn’t pocket change. It takes a crane, a few thousand bucks, and years of skill. Unless special care is taken, work could be damaged or a rigger crushed or killed. Slings hold sections erect while Gerola climbs and bolts sections together. Once his sculptures are sited, though, they are again extremely stable. This seems ironic, since many of them are kinetic, and move by themselves.

These loans represent a central conflict in Gerola’s story. He envisioned keeping his collection intact as a single giant menagerie. Yet distributing them where they can best be appreciated enhances their value and gets them seen. Several still reside at Sussex County Community College in Newton, New Jersey, Don’s old stomping grounds. “It’s not about the money… I’m not actively seeking commissions.” “Clearly he is no superhero”, but you have to wonder how anyone accomplished so much.

Despite this dream, he can’t go on forever without funding. He sells paintings based on similar principles, constructed of applique, paint, sand and seed on stable board, and original steel objects in the 4 to 6 foot range, as if souvenirs of the real sculptures. Discriminating collectors seek him out, and sales have increased recently. After a successful career building a renowned sculpture park of his own and supplying influential landscape architects, he still has a head full of unrealized designs to add to his vast collection of existing pieces. A charitable foundation or corporate sponsor could acquire a major piece or two, or commission something new, or send pieces on a whirlwind world tour, a new meaning for kinetics. After all, steel vehicles move, Rolling Stones have been on tour forever. Why not sculpture?

To see more of Gerola’s work, visit http://www.donaldgerola.com

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