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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Man of steel

Mar 11, 2015 08:07AM ● By J. Chambless

Stan Smokler with an exhibition wall of recent works in his studio.

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Summer 2013 edition.)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer
Surrounded by his fanciful sculptures in the historic stone building that serves as his studio, Stan Smokler was talking about how he turns chunks of steel into flights of imagination.
"Lots of people think that metal is this heavy, straight-edged thing," he said, "but it dances. It has a wonderful choreography."
Spend an hour with Smokler in his studio and you're drawn into his richly creative world. Perched on a steep, narrow slope between Marshall Bridge Road and the Red Clay Creek, the building is both exhibition space and workshop. At one end of the room are Smokler's workbench and his tools. In the middle are several finished works, along with neat piles of steel rods, chains and castoff bits that are sorted by shape and awaiting Smokler's creative touch.
In the nooks and crannies are things that appeal to him -- a dessicated squirrel, birds with their intricate skeletal structures exposed, animal skulls, his own rough sketches, folk art and much more. It's hard to tell where his inspirations end and his work begins. They seem to grow out of each other.
"I like to keep myself busy," he said with a grin. "People give me good metal pieces. All of this is recycled material. What I'll do is resuscitate the material, give it a new life."
Smokler, who got his MFA in sculpture from the Pratt Institute in 1975, has been an artist for a long time. His early work combined cast-off items in whimsical ways, but didn't alter the basic ingredients. Recently, he has taken a new direction, stretching and disguising the items in ways that continually surprise. The work is freer, less representational and more open-ended.
Smokler doesn't cast anything -- all his work is achieved through welding. While he will occasionally sketch ideas on paper for a piece, much of his creating is done by handling the materials. "I take pieces that exist, and I'll rip and I'll tear and pull, and create pieces as I go along," he said. 
Someone brought him exhaust pipes from a motorcycle, and Smokler recently turned them into two vastly different works. Hay balers that had been burned in a fire were turned into "Lazarus." Huge metal spools that once held wire for PECO became a towering sculpture echoing DNA structure.
For the past 15 years or so, Smokler has taught at the Delaware College of Art and Design, instructing college-age students and enjoying the free exchange of ideas. "I just love teaching," he said. "It's probably advanced my career and reduced my age. It's a wonderful process."
Every summer, Smokler accepts 10 students who come and create alongside him for a week. "I supply everything," he said, pointing out a pile of metal pieces stacked behind the stone foundation of an old barn that's next to his studio. Here, his students -- "everyone from doctors to high-school students, it runs the gamut," he said -- learn to "deny the gravity" in their work. "That's the essence of a sculptor," he said. "I tell the students that they're architects, figuring how they're going to develop the spatial relationship of pieces that they put together.
"What I'm looking for is people who really have passion," he said of the summer workshops, during which students learn to cope with the studio's simplicity. Due to its location, there's no plumbing, so Smokler has built a portable toilet into the lower level of his studio. On the lower level, students can work in the shade, or in the wide-open foundation of the barn ruin nearby. The swiftly flowing Red Clay is just a few steps away, and the bank is a showplace for Smokler's large sculptures.
"I was offered this place about 10 years ago and immediately bought it," he said of the 3.5-acre property. "I got really lucky. It's a perfect space." 
His renovations brought electricity and a slightly higher level of comfort to the place, but the rustic quality remains. He also maintains a studio in New York City, where he is represented by the Kim Foster Gallery. The difference in the two locations inspires him.
"It's so quiet here," he said. "New York is constantly moving."
Despite being "not big with change," Smokler said the vibrancy of Manhattan -- its galleries and crush of people -- energizes his work. "I have a city beat. I grew up in the city, but this is becoming more of a home beat for me," he said of his Chester County studio. "I decompress over time." 
There's a bit of New York City on the floor of Smokler's workplace. Several lengths of tightly wrapped cable have a patina of corrosion. "This is my palette," he said of the pile. "For instance, these cables are from the Broklyn Bridge. I was walking by, and they were doing some renovations and throwing them out. They were tightly wound, and I just unwound them."
Sometimes, materials lie around for 25 years before they are used, Smokler said. The ongoing process of creating art takes a while. 
"They reach a point where they're done, but it doesn't happen instantly," he said of his work. "I have a relationship with the work. It has a life. I look at it as a living organism. At some point, it says, 'No, you can't touch me anymore.' That's when I know it's done."
Smokler's acclaimed sculptures are in dozens of private collections and at colleges. He's well represented in the Dansko, Inc., collection in West Grove, Pa., but also at the Kirkwood Library in Wilmington, Del., and the Delaware Art Museum's Corporate Division.
A hallmark of his work is its fluidity and subtle sense of humor. Viewers can either play spot-the-object in his mix of farm tools, cast-offs and machine parts, or they can contemplate the larger messages. "Black Hole" (2007) is a web of concentric lines and circular planet-like shapes that has a dizzying quality. In "Helios," he suggests the boiling surface of the sun. "Construction 1954" echoes the shape of an antique telescope, and "Spalling" (2005) represents the circular trimmings left over when a drill bites into metal. His work doesn't follow trends or stray into esoteric areas where casual observers might feel lost. His pieces are always right in the sweet spot of being identifiable, but thought-provoking. You may recognize his sources, but he leads you toward something else altogether.
Smokler lives near the studio with his wife. Their daughter is pursuing an acting career in New York City. The balance he's achieved in his life and work, he said, has rooted him. He has been able to be a professional artist for most of his adult life.
"Teaching has been a great lesson and brought some steady income," he said. "And doing the workshops has helped on the money end. I'm just fortunate that I have a low overhead and I'm able to sell my work. I've been very lucky."

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail [email protected]

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