From Machine to Menagerie | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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From Machine to Menagerie 

There's always a point at the Eno Festival for the Eno when you head back toward the mill and the place where you can stick your feet in the cool river. But this year, there was this big old thing looming over by the bridge, making jaws drop. It took some folks a minute to realize they were looking at the butt-end of a donkey, big as, or bigger than life, built of rusty chains and coils and springs and gears and pieces and parts. It was 1,800 pounds of humble iron jackass, with the massive shoulders and pointy ears of his kind, standing patiently with a load of firewood. Beside him, Don Quixote leaned on his lance, all sharp elbows and skinny legs and weary chivalry.

Did you ever throw out a lawnmower blade or a car part or some such thing and think, "I wonder if there's any use for this?" If Daniel Mathewson comes across it, there is. He's a metal sculptor with a keen appreciation for junk and all its potential. "When I find a piece, I see it as something really needing to be repurposed," he says, "A lot of times I think, who could throw that away? Like a plow disc--it's this thing that's made out of steel that's shaped like a lens. How cool is that?" Two plow discs form the basis for the donkey's hindquarters. If you peer closely, machines of every kind are represented, from farm implements to cars to lawnmowers. An experienced mechanic, Mathewson can tell you the history of just about every piece in his sculptures.

A trip to Mathewson's house in Efland is a visit to a menagerie both live and steel. A scrap-metal goat browses by the mailbox; the real goats prefer the green grass higher up in the field. Five dogs of various sizes come out to greet you. They mill around Mathewson's feet constantly when he is outside. Three or four cats bask among the shop rubble, Sally the sheep lives with the goats. The cows are made of old gas tanks; the scrap-iron lady seems to be walking an armadillo around the rock garden that leads up to the front door.

Some of what you see shows up at art shows or the Festival for the Eno, some you can find on sale at Reba & Roses in Hillsborough, and some are one-of-a-kind pieces that might find a buyer or become part of the family. Of the hundreds of sculptures Mathewson has made, a representative of each era tends to stick around. His daughters, ages 6 and 9, climb in and out of the artwork with impunity: He builds the pieces to be structurally sound with that in mind. "My kids are the center of my life," he says. The elephant in the backyard is their jungle gym. In his house, their artwork gets equal billing with his own.

Mathewson, 37, is a slight, wiry guy with a handsome face under a mop of light-brown hair that looks like he cuts it himself. (He does, if he cuts it at all.) His clothes are thrift-store or scavenged and hang loosely on him. In fact, nearly everything he owns seems to be something thrown away that he has taken home and refurbished. "There's nothing more exciting than going to the dump," he says. His kitchen features a beautiful vintage gas stove, a '50s enameled table, an intact, working, old beauty-parlor hairdryer, light fixtures and metal cabinets he has painted and decorated. He waxes enthusiastic about all of it, demonstrating the stove flame, insisting I sit under the hairdryer. "Here, try it without the heat; it's the perfect white noise."

Mathewson has an intensely animated manner. A conversation with him is a runaway ride from place to place, subject to subject as he thinks out loud without apparent inhibitions. He is knowledgeable on a wide range of topics and fascinated by everything, so that you can start out on welding and end up on insects in a couple of minutes, with brief drive-bys of seven or eight subjects in between.

His art demonstrates the same tangential mindset. His animal structures are incredibly intricate, hipbone connected to leg bone connected to tire iron connected to saw blade. It becomes a new kind of anatomy, that follows a structural and lyrical logic of its own, as if an elephant evolved out of bicycle parts in the primordial landfill. He works without a definite plan, and can even build the same animal again, faster, out of entirely different parts. His mind seems to jump easily to the right connections. The resulting creatures are curiously lifelike, with the charm and personality of a friendly if somewhat ugly mutt. If all representation is metaphor, this is a kind of hyper-representation, with every joint and paw a visual pun, a tangent of its own.

Mathewson grew up in a Raleigh suburb until he was in fifth grade, when his parents split up. His mother moved them to a farm on the outskirts of Durham. He says the move was quite a shock. "I liked the peace of it," he recalls. "I didn't like the work that came along with it." But he grew up handy with machinery, with taking things apart and putting them back together. He's held a long series of odd jobs, but 10 years ago, a neighbor showed him how to weld. "I got 10 minutes of instruction and the next week I went out and got a welder." He starting making things for fun, then there were so many around the house he gave them away, then he started selling them.

His house holds more examples of the phases he's been through. There's the Dr. Seuss-esque lamps with circles that glow in the dark when you turn them off. There's the coffee table that looks pieced together like a metal quilt: It appears delicate until he climbs on top of it. There are the shadow boxes, and the psychedelic moons. For a time, Mathewson made his living making humanoid copper frogs. He made more than 130 before he got tired of it. "After about 110, I felt like I was just filling orders and getting away from making the ones I was inspired to make." One last frog stands in the corner of his living room, his wide mouth gaping. In the opposite corner is a robot girl, straight out of the Jetsons. She is cut out of bright painted steel with a plasma torch, her lines are clean and rust-free; she pushes a '50s-era vacuum cleaner.

You get the feeling Mathewson's aesthetic style moves around as quickly and constantly as he does himself. "If I didn't have something to do with my hands, I'd go crazy," he says. His current project is a 25-foot stegosaurus, with a head that swivels. The basic structure is there, but it still looks underfed compared to some of the creatures around it. A pile of scrap beside it dwindles daily. Mathewson's yard is nothing like the junk heap you might picture. He says material moves in and out very quickly. True, there are nine vehicles. "But they all run," he is quick to point out, "all but the dune buggy, but that's only about eight hours of work." The prize is the '66 black Lincoln Continental he's been fixing up. "It gets 15 miles to the gallon, but when I get through with it, it'll get at least 17." Or else the '58 Airstream trailer. "You should have seen the one I had that I sold." There's also a series of lawn chairs on wheels made from old mowers and wagons and such, and a throne-like recliner made from a supermarket bread-rack.

What's on the backburner now--until that stegosaurus gets fattened up--is mobiles. He talks excitedly about the possibility of hanging cars and refrigerators in the air. He's working on a giant chicken mobile to hang in a show at Niche Gardens in mid-September. The head is lying in a corner of his outdoor shop. It looks like it could be the biggest chicken since the one that chased Woody Allen in Sleeper. And it's gonna fly.

  • Concerning Efland's knight errant, his donkey and the sculptor who made them.

More by Ristin Cooks

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