Artist oversees installation of steel pieces at Emerson Umbrella
CONCORD — It was raining hard when David Stromeyer, fresh from hauling thousands of pounds of painted steel from Vermont, put on his work gloves. Some artists — think Tara Donovan or Dale Chihuly — don't even show up every time their art is installed. Not Stromeyer. At 66, the artist arrived at the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts in Concord eager to get started. He wasn't here to observe. He was here to lead the installation.
This, he said with a shrug, was out of necessity.
"It would be great if anyone else knew what the heck they were doing to the extent that I do," said Stromeyer, a thin, muscular figure with a deeply lined face.
Recently Stromeyer and a small crew worked for two days to mount four of the artist's sculptures on the lawn of Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts. The installation, to be in place for a year, represents a change for the community arts organization, which was founded in 1982, has a nearly $1 million annual budget, and offers art classes, studios, and performances in a former high school on Stow Street. Emerson Umbrella has shown works on its lawn for four years, but this is the first time the institution has focused on just one artist in that high-profile space.
Stromeyer, a Marblehead native who splits his time between Vermont and Texas, has had his work shown at, among others, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the University of Vermont's Robert Hull Fleming Museum, in Burlington. Stromeyer also has a connection to Concord. His sister-in-law, Mimsey Stromeyer, is a painter and mixed-media artist who is one of 54 artists renting space at Emerson Umbrella.
"It's a small yard and four pieces and they just work," said Jerry Wedge, the executive director of Emerson Umbrella.
He also figured the pieces could serve another purpose: to spread awareness. "I also think a lot of people in Concord don't have a full understanding of what we do here," said Wedge.
First, though, the artist and crew had to install the four pieces.
"Paso Doble" and "Swingin' Easy" came first. "Doble," named after the Spanish dance, features a twisted cylinder of blue steel. "Swinging Easy" is blue on the outside and orange on the inside. The pieces are tall and thin and stand out on the lawn. The other pieces — "Shaping the Void" and "Listen Closely" — are made up of twisted, painted metal figures that appear to have legs and torsos that tangle with each other.
The pieces are not only on display, they're for sale, with "Paso Doble" priced at $44,000, the other three at $53,000 apiece. A 25 percent commission will go Emerson Umbrella.
On the first day of installation, in the rain, Stromeyer and crew unloaded the steel pieces. The first challenge was lifting the heavy steel pieces over a series of wires on the site. On the second day, with the sun out, the artist worked on moving those pieces into place and mounting them properly.
It was a process that came with some tension.
Stromeyer and the crew, temporary workers hired by Emerson, had never worked together. The sculptor is very particular about his system for installing and can be brusque.
"Here's how we're going to do it," he said at one point. "Don't ask me any questions. I'll explain. If you have any questions, you can ask after."
He had been on edge a bit because, on the previous day, a crew member had decided to signal a direction to the crane operator, which Stromeyer considered a no-no. It was really an issue of safety: The operator could get confused by getting orders from more than one person.
"I had to say to him, 'There will be one signaler of the crane and that will be me,' " said Stromeyer. "There's one skipper in this boat."
On installation day two, Stromeyer stood next to a piece of painted steel suspended by cables connected to the crane, as if an oversized potato chip were levitating. As soon as the crane inched forward, the motion caused the steel to shift and show its weight. Stromeyer, with gloved hands, gave signals and also pushed on the piece to make sure it moved in the correct direction. At a break, he shifted the cables to different sections. Eventually, the crane operator was able to lower the piece to the ground.
His wife, Sarah, watched nervously, snapping photos.
"If there's one worrier in every crowd, who thinks of all the 12 ways something could go wrong, I am that person," she said. "And David is very optimistic and confident. Keep very careful and keep focused and things will go well."
He has been at this for a while. Stromeyer earned a studio art degree from Dartmouth College before heading to Boston, in the 1970s, to work as a filmmaker. He also worked as a freelance photographer for local museums. Inspired by the works of David Smith and Mark Di Suvero, he began to experiment with steel, at one point lifting a 3-ton boulder into the air and dropping it on a piece. He takes pride in the fact that he creates his art, from the twisting of the metal to the sandblasting and painting.
"It sounds really simple, but you don't grab one end and turn it in the way you intuitively might think," he said. "[Each piece has] to be built incrementally, every inch, bending it in multiple directions at once. I spent two months building jigs for the hydraulic press to create those forms. And each twist is different."
By the second day in Concord, his four works were in place.
Wedge, the center's executive director, said he has high hopes for Strohmeyer's work. He wants it to bring more attention to Emerson Umbrella. He also hopes it will spark more interest in outdoor sculpture in Concord.
"My hope is that because people fall in love with this, we might be able to expand the public art throughout town," said Wedge.