Sculptor of iconic junk goes flat

Norman Tinker collage show June 24, 25
By Ethan Andrews | Jun 19, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Sculptor Norman Tinker recently cleaned out the garage, where he has spent the last 22 years creating eye-catching scrap metal sculptures, to hang a show of his collages.

Belfast — In conversations that get as far as "where do you live?" Tinker sometimes adds that his house with is the one with all the metal sculptures in the yard. More often than not, people know where that is.

The retired metalworker and teacher has been making and displaying his sculptures of welded scrap metal, car parts, bedsprings, Tonka trucks and other cast-off materials outside his home for the last 22 years. In a departure from the ongoing exhibition of abstract works on his lawn, his upcoming show will feature flat collages of photographs and words … and will be on display for just two days.

Tinker developed his trademark sculptures when he moved to Belfast in 1996, and he regards the subsequent two decades as his third career. His first was as an art professor, at Oberlin, then at Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan, Conn. His own sculptures at the time were comparatively serious. He worked in steel, stone, clay and other rugged, earthy materials; and was strongly influenced by simple modern sculptures of early minimalism.

Alberto Giacometti's enigmatic "The Palace at 4 a.m." caught his eye, in part because it reminded him of abandoned buildings he explored as a child. David Smith's "Australia" made a similarly strong impression.

"It's very linear and very open, and it just seems to engulf this huge space," Tinker said, "which makes it like Australia."

Silvermine closed in 1971 and Tinker, newly out of a job, was sick of teaching. The unrest of the late 1960s brought a push by students for more freedom in the classroom, which, in Tinker's experience meant, "a lot of freedom to smoke dope and not get their work done."

He had three children by his first marriage and recently had married one of his former models, a social worker named Evie — they have been together 51 years — with whom he would have two more children. Not working wasn't just an objectionable lifestyle; it wasn't an option.

Through a string of unfulfilling jobs, including one designing decor for a shopping mall, Tinker kept coming back to the idea of starting his own business. Finally, in an impulsive moment, he signed a contract on a two-bay garage in Ridgefield, Conn., and opened The Tinker Shop, selling custom hand-wrought iron work.

On Connecticut's Gold Coast, there turned out to be plenty of demand for his services. He made several massive gates for the former mayor of Mexico City and did staircase railings, fences and other contract work for clients with similarly unusual backstories.

Although he had no formal training, Tinker had done enough metal work as a sculptor to get in the door and learn what he needed along the way. As he put it, "I had the skills and creativity. I'd been making things my whole life."

Through this second career, he and Evie regularly visited one of Tinker's former students in Maine, who, on hearing that they wanted to retire here, advised them to look at Belfast. Like many people, the Tinkers knew the city as a place of poultry plants, but when they looked again, in the early 1990s, they were drawn to the influence of the back-to-the-landers who had been colonizing the area for the previous two decades. They bought the house on Miller Street in 1996.

By this time, Tinker hadn't done sculpture in more than a decade, but he had also shed some of the pretenses that fueled his early work. On a trip to a scrap metal yard in Brewer, he came across some intriguing materials and decided to take them home.

"I just started putting things together," he said.

He kept going, making one sculpture after another and putting them in his yard where he could enjoy them. A neighbor didn't enjoy them, however, and thinking the scrap metal sculptures would lower his property value, appealed to the city. What followed was a prolonged debate over the definition of a home business and whether Tinker was manufacturing something to sell.

Ironically, a televised segment about the city's zoning debate caught the attention of a woman who wanted to buy one of Tinker's sculptures. He sold it to her, and, inspired by the turn of events, he picked up a large sign at a junk shop that read "Smith Welding" and mounted it above the door of his garage studio.

"I thought I might get in trouble over the size of the sign, and that would be good, too," he said.

It didn't work, but Tinker didn't end up needing the negative publicity to get attention. The house with the growing junk menagerie in its yard became a local of landmark. The irritable neighbor eventually sold, at a good price, to someone who liked the idea of living by a sculpture garden. Tinker joked that he should have got a cut of the sale.

Heavy, no metal

Tinker's collages aren't obvious cousins of the friendly hunks of welded stuff in his yard. The flat panels have layers of roughly cut magazine clippings overlapping drawings and handwritten slogans. They are harsh and politically charged.

The title of one piece, "Daddy, please teach me to shoot," is a quote from a "gun porn" magazine Tinker picked up at Hannaford. The piece was inspired by an incident in which a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot a rifle range attendant to death with an Uzi submachine gun.

The raw material of his collages comes from all kinds of magazines, newspapers and books. The style is quick and dirty, and far from archival. Tinker calls them "combines," a term coined by Robert Rauschenberg for his own quickly assembled works.

Although he's displayed his work at a number of local galleries and has only good things to say about the proprietors, Tinker isn't a big fan of commercial galleries. For his show of collages, he cleared out the workshop where he does his welding and covered the walls with the two-dimensional work.

His oxy-acetylene welding tanks, worktable and raw materials are temporarily out in the yard, where they are decently camouflaged. Unlike the sculptures that surround the house, the short duration of the show surely has to do with getting back to work in the garage.

Tinker’s “Collage in the Garage (and Art in the Yard)” show will run Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 130 Miller St.

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