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Photo: Chris Shields
Metal in Mind
By Jacqueline Keren

Like Noah Savett’s long journeys from sketch to sculpture, his own career progress has been slow, measured, and ultimately rewarding

A road map can only tell you which turn to take, what direction to head in. It’s not until you’re driving that you see the possibilities—truck stops, McDonald’s, street fairs. That’s when a trip becomes a journey. The Saratoga studio of sculptor Noah Savett is papered with road maps—sketches for large-scale steel creations, many of them on view throughout the North Country. The drawings are executed with a draftsman’s detail, like plans for machines with obscure purposes. “Over the course of a month or two, I do 50 or so thumbnails,” he says, indicating a stack of pink-and-orange note paper covered with dense sketches. “At work, on the phone, I do a lot of these. If I sifted through, I might find five that are worth the effort of expanding into graphite,” he adds, motioning to the larger drawings hanging from the walls. “These are train-of-thought compositions. I put ideas on paper that might be strong enough to turn into sculpture.”

Only a few will make the cut. For those that do, Savett moves on to a larger, more refined drawing, which in turn is blown up to a size where the details can be worked out. In the end, he says, “it takes 25 pages of written and drawn notes for a piece approximately 6 feet.”

Savett acknowledges that other sculptors think “it’s weird to be so mapped out.” But the process is painstaking for a reason—Savett’s pieces can take from a year to five to complete despite the 15 to 20 hours each week he and his assistant spend in the studio. “I’d rather not crank out sculpture,” he adds. “I’d rather fabricate pieces.”

Savett, a 56-year-old sculptor who was raised in Utica and moved to Saratoga in the early 1970s, has been working with metal since college. But it was not until age 40, after he had built up a successful business, that he was free to devote substantial time to his artwork. In the last 15 years, he has shown his work regionally and in New York City and gone from having sold one piece (in 1973 to his cousin) to working on commission and selling to private collectors. His sculptures have been described as surreal and pop, praised for their lack of avant-gardism, and lauded for their playfulness. But his highest praise comes from art historian James Kettlewell, who describes Savett’s style, with its combination of beauty, structure and postmodern complexity, as “utterly original for its epoch” and the “style for its time for the second millennium.”

>From his drawings, Savett “gets a sense of which materials are plausible to make the forms.” Once he starts working in metal, things change. “As they are made, they evolve just by being three-dimensional.” About Izaak is a weave of steel and bronze, of metals both fluid and static. A long, liquid form runs through two stolid plates and splashes down at their feet. Some of the surfaces are smooth and polished while others have been treated with gilder’s wax to give the metal a red patina. Named for his 4-year-old son, the piece is both whimsical and mischievous, a window on a game of hide and seek where the deepest pleasure lies not in disappearing into some forgotten nook but in finding ways of being sought.

Some of Savett’s work is inspired by the materials he encounters, remnants from his iron-works company, which makes specialty pieces—railings, stairways—for large commercial projects. These leftovers, he says, have become his own personal scrap yard. In Fossil, Savett’s foraging turned up the deck of a work barge, which, he says, became “the heavy canvas for a painting.” Warped and bent, he played up its imperfections to give the illusion of something formed by extraordinary forces. Into and on top of this surface he began to add objects which he describes as “relics of our culture.” Railroad ties, spidery cables, casts of golf clubs, and a helmet are worked in and out of the patterned metal to create a somber record of recent decades.

Photo: Chris Shields

Over the years, Savett has developed an aesthetic that he says “incorporates elements that are manufactured with organic elements. And to make functional things melt, fade into organic shapes.” Indeed, his work is an eerie combination of metal that seems to possess both motion and motivation bound by forms that overwhelm simply by their heft and weight. It’s a combination that people respond to. His work is in private collections and public venues and has received high praise, with comparisons to Claes Oldenburg, Salvador Dali and even Michelangelo. As art historian James Kettlewell writes in a review of Savett’s work, “In [Michelangelo’s] David, the marble—like Savett’s steel—is never at rest, but continually undulates, becoming not a description but rather an expression of flesh.”

While the process of fabricating large-scale steel sculpture can be slow and deliberate, Savett’s drawings are more extemporaneous. In recent years, he has also begun to work on small bronzes that take on the more liquid elements of his larger work and concentrate it. Downsizing even further, he is making wax molds for a group of palm-sized bronze casts. The results are reminiscent of Tom Otterness’s playful yet slightly subversive figures that dot the New York City subway system. Savett says that “wax is slower than drawing, a different process and form.” Yet the results seem freer, more intuitive.

Like the progress of his work, Savett’s progress as a sculptor has been slow and measured, a road map he laid out for himself after college that has evolved along the way. Savett left Antioch College in Ohio in 1974 in search of an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, realized the difficulties of making a living through his art, and spent the next 15 years developing his iron-works business. During that period, his drawings sustained him. When that wasn’t enough, he made the decision to get back into the game. “I had told people I was a sculptor. It was time to do it. Like with a piece—break it with a sledgehammer or do it.”

Now, he says, he has no complaints about the time it took him to get here. The success of his business has supplied him with a studio, industrial-grade equipment, time, and the ability to create what he wants, free of the pressures of selling.

Because of the long break in his artistic career, projects that sat dormant for years now occasionally resurface, some intact, others in new forms. A cast of a hand, its fingers severed at the top joint, derives from a prototype for a project he began in 1972 before the end of the Vietnam War: to cast thousands of body parts, inscribe them with thank you notes, then dump them on the United Nations Plaza. Now it will be a single cast in bronze called Bomb Fall, Run Fast, a cautionary piece about contemporary conflicts. Other scraps from the past—such as a body cast of a 300-pound man—await attention, each a road map of limited directions.

Noah Savett’s sculptures can be seen at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum Sculpture Park, Adirondack Community College, Saratoga County Arts Council Gallery, Saratoga Springs Public Library, and this summer at the Riverfront Gallery in Schuylerville. He will have a solo show at the Visual Arts Gallery of Fulton Montgomery Community College in Johnstown this fall.

 

Photo 2: Chris Shields


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