He ran into burning buildings by day. But on his days off, he created.
Whenever I heard the chainsaw buzzing in the backyard, I knew my dad was sculpting. Yup, sculpting. He spent many of his days off crafting animal sculptures out of large chunks of wood. When he saw a downed tree, he’d load parts of the broken trunk into the back of his car and once home, cut them into manageable-sized hunks. Over months or sometimes longer, he’d finesse the wood into a penguin, a dolphin, or whatever its destiny — using a chainsaw. Imagine your next door neighbor spent hours cutting wood with a chainsaw? Maddening. Yet no one ever complained — a testament to how well liked he was, I think.
Never one to be frivolous, my father made art out of items he found or already had. In Piermont, as the name implies, there is a pier that juts out for one mile into the Hudson River. Interesting items — and sometimes plain garbage — wash up on the shores of the pier. While out walking on the pier, my father would pick up whatever called to him to use for future projects — old bottles, pieces of driftwood, large pieces of rusted metal, and other objects of indeterminate origin. He could see a bird’s neck in a piece of wood and pair it with three other pieces and turn it all into a sculpture of a swan. These artworks made their way into what my father considered his own private, open air galleries — our front and backyards.
I think it all started with a copper weathervane he fashioned into the shape of an Irish setter pointing — modeled after our dog, Poky. The weathervane-dog was supposed to turn to point into the wind but never seemed to find its way, kind of like the dopey dog who inspired it. The weathervane remained static on a pole, overlooking the backyard, until after seven or eight years, hurricane winds bent the metal.
For years, we had an insect sculpture the size of a Volkswagen bug on the front lawn. My father constructed it out of an old wooden beam and long strips of mangled metal found on the pier. He may have moved it slightly to mow the lawn, but it was a fixture — the giant insect sculpture. Sadly, a tree branch fell on it and the bug got squashed, never to be resurrected.
I loved my dad’s lawn creations and thought they added a quirky dimension to our house and the whole block. Some kids might have been embarrassed to have a bug sculpture on their lawn but I wasn’t. When I was around eleven, a friend’s mother asked about it as she pulled into our driveway to drop me off. As I explained it to her, I was pleased and proud to have such an interesting father. No one else had giant bugs on their lawns.
After the giant bug, my father started making smaller sculptures with railroad ties and metal wire — insects were still one of his favorite subjects. He also found it hilarious to make railroad tie skiers and then photograph them perched on railroad tracks. (Get it? A skier made of railroad ties skiing on a railroad track? Yeah, I never thought it was funny either.)
At the end of our driveway was a large, metal sculpture constructed from metal piping left over from the headboard my dad made for my sister Kim’s bed. On the mantel in our living room was a huge beam he took from someone’s trash and thought was interesting. (My mother eventually made him get rid of it. Often, her eye was better than his. Plus, I think there were bugs living in it.)
He also had a grand idea for some old blinds my mother had put in the garbage. He rescued them and arranged them in a tree in what he thought was an artful way. Really, it looked like a hurricane had come through, ripped the blinds out of a window, and they landed in a tree. Maybe that’s what he was going for. Those ended up back in the garbage. But that was the thing about my dad, he thought it was a good idea to try something new and see if it worked. As he used to say, hoist it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes!
My dad’s sculptures were especially interesting because he was creative with materials and also, he usually left them outside to succumb to the elements (although, on reflection, maybe my mom didn’t give him a choice). He didn’t care about preserving anything — he enjoyed the process and was gratified by the outcome. Let nature take its course with what he created and we appreciated it while we had it.
Sculpture has always been my favorite medium. I struggled to find the meaning in abstract paintings or in old masters depicting scenes of religious figures or ancient aristocrats. But sculpture has always seemed accessible to me — even abstract sculpture. I may not understand exactly what the artist is trying to convey but I can see the beauty in the way metal, stone, or recycled materials are used and combined to form something borne out of imagination. I also love sculpture because it’s found in everyday life, not only in art museums.
My dad didn’t limit his projects to sculpture. Using whatever paint he had lying around the basement, he changed the color of the front door anytime the mood struck him. I’d leave for school in the morning and the door was purple and by the time I got home, it could be green.
Growing up with a creative father, I didn’t bat an eye when something new appeared on the lawn or in the house. I never thought it was strange or unusual, even if I didn’t love everything he made. It was just how things looked at my house.
My dad’s refuse art was a manifestation of his curious nature. On walks — especially in Manhattan — he’d point out discrete architectural details, murals I didn’t notice, an interesting way the light hit a doorway, a curve in a façade, beauty in buildings, cool characters walking down the street, or a car painted an offbeat color. My father noticed things other people did not. He never missed an opportunity to find beauty in what others saw as ordinary or mundane.
When I model this behavior for my own children and point out interesting things to them, I love their reactions. One summer morning in 2018, my kids and I drove by East 72nd and Park Avenue where I pointed out a tall, white bulbous Tony Cragg sculpture. Petey, my son who was five at the time, said: “It looks like a pile of butts.” He was right. It did. Not sure that is what the sculptor was going for. But I’ve never been prouder.
What strikes me now about my father’s process was how detached he was from the outcome. He created art because of how it made him feel. He didn’t care that his creations could end up on the front lawn or in the garbage. He definitely didn’t care what anyone else thought of what he made. I find a strong parallel with my father’s creative process and my own writing. Years ago, when I started writing about my dad, it wasn’t a choice — I felt compelled, and the process was cathartic. The stories and words swirled around in my head, often keeping me up at night, until I put pen to paper. Once they were out, the swirling stopped until the next idea took hold and the process repeated. The process of writing healed me.
When I decided to share his stories, it was a similar feeling. I felt I had to get these stories out into the world in some way, shape or form. I was detached from the outcome once they were posted. I really appreciate the comments and the likes but what gratified me the most was that his living memory was continuing in the world.
If you knew him, you probably can understand that in most ways he seemed like an average guy living an average life — from the outside. He worked a civil service job (and sometimes two side jobs), he cared for us, cared for his home, and was a good friend and neighbor. Yet, to really know him was to know he was extraordinary. For my entire life, friends, family, his co-workers and often strangers who met him a single time, tell me, “Your dad was like no other.” I knew it while he was alive and I know it even more now. For beyond his mundane circumstances was a man with the greatest integrity, kindness, creativity, humor, grace, strength, resilience, and loyalty. I have yet to meet anyone else like him. (Sorry Joe, you are a distant third or fourth.)
But speaking of art, I can’t talk about my father and his creative side without re-telling his story of the time he saw Salvador Dali ride by in a handsome cab in Central Park. My dad claims he shouted, “Dali!” And Mr. Dali turned and raised his martini glass in a toast. Wait, what? Dali carried a martini glass, a tumbler full of gin and vermouth, hired a handsome, and then poured himself a drink while riding around Central Park in a cart pulled by a horse? Admittedly, he (my dad? Dali?) was a character but this requires suspending some disbelief. Nevertheless, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.