Kathryn Boughton wrote an article for the Litchfield County Times about a talk I gave to art students and the public last week at the Tremaine Gallery at Salisbury School in Salisbury, CT. Here’s the text, followed by the photo.
By Kathryn Boughton
SALISBURY—“Art is completely the water I swim in,” said Cornwall artist and performer Karl Saliter, addressing a roomful of Salisbury School students last Thursday.”Artists see challenges and opportunities.”
Mr. Saliter had been invited to the school to describe his work and to explain his process for finding inspiration and carrying it through to completion. High-spirited, funny, and relying on the body language he uses so effectively in his alternate career as a clown, Mr. Saliter engaged his audience as he flashed through a Power Point program that showed many of his pieces and the work that went into their creation.
Up came an image of a wire mesh tree that he installed in West Hollywood. “I made the tree and sold it to West Hollywood, and for a while I was in danger of being happy,” he quipped to his audience. “But no sculptor can make trees as well as nature.”
It is ironic that this tree brought him such joy, because, as his blurb onperformers.net says, “Karl, who left a perfectly good career as a tree doctor in Arizona to take up street performing, now lives in Connecticut surrounded by trees he ignores.” Still, Mr. Saliter looks to nature for many of the materials he incorporates in his sculptures. He is noted for combining stones and steel to create innovative abstract forms.
Asked how he stumbled on the combination of stone and metal, he responded that his first foray into sculpture came during the promotion to a “no TV” week in Cornwall. He crafted an anti-television sculpture using a satellite dish as a base that was placed by the school door. He said the sculpture launched his career as an artist “to no acclaim at all.”
“After that, I just worked in metal,” he continued, “but I didn’t do anything I felt happy to get behind. Then I was on a walk in the woods, not even thinking about art, when I saw a rock. I had no idea what I would do with it, but I loved that rock because it was perfectly, perfectly flat on one side. Today, I think I would find it boring, but I picked it up and brought it back with me.”
His impulsive behavior is part and parcel of his approach to art. “We live as if we are not a naturally occurring phenomenon,” he said. “If we understand that, it takes the pressure off you. My work is process oriented—I don’t know which direction I am growing in, but I try to keep actively a part of my work. The two things I cultivate in my mind are gratitude and wonder.”
From that moment in the woods grew a body of work that has seen him drill into stones he gathers and arrange them in compositions held together by rebar. His early constructions often featured smooth stones anchored by epoxy atop rebar poles, arranged at different angles and heights. Now he is attracted by rougher stones, with sharper angles that he incorporates into structures. The new materials have led to heavier constructions, such as a stone cube he made last summer at the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek, Wisc.
He had been invited to the school for a two-week residency and said he had no idea what he would create once there. “I worked entirely from found materials I took from campus,” he reported. “It was a great time.”
Particularly exciting to the artist was the new-found opportunity to use heavy equipment to help him move the parts of his sculpture. “When they hired me, I said it would be nice if they could have a Bobcat available for me,” he said, “and they said yes. I thought they would provide an operator, but when I got there, they said, ‘Here’s the keys.’ Yes! God, I love a Bobcat! What a change in your work when you have something like that.”
The addition of the equipment ended up changing the final appearance of the sculpture, however. “I could weld a whole wall together and then move it,” he told the Salisbury students. “It was so great to be able to create something and then move it, but it warped when I picked it up, which gave the final work subtle bows and curves that make the cube much more organic.”
Most of the stones are used in the state he finds them, rarely reworked to make them fit in the composition. Placing the elements is “meditative and good,” he told the students, but while creation of the piece is rewarding, he is not wedded to the final product. “I can remove rocks and welds,” he explained. “Sometimes I take things down and reprocess them. I am not concerned with rust prevention.”
He noted that most public art is removed within 60 years of its installation as tastes change.Some of his creations seem to fly in the face of probability. Consider the stone and metal sphere that seems to float on the surface of the Hudson River, installed in 2008. “At that point the river is about chest high,” he explained. “I took a six-by-three-foot steel grate—it was originally part of a trash can I created for a Great Barrington [Mass.] public art display that was rejected—and I sank it in the river to support the sphere.”
With all his work, Mr. Saliter said he likes his viewers to have a physical connection. “If I could, I would make a sign that says, ‘Please touch the art,’” he told his audience.
He was asked how he determines when one of his free-form sculptures is done. “There are moments that are really beautiful on the way, but I really know that it is not done,” he said. “Then there are just definitive moments, when you think, ‘After this, I’m gilding the lily.’”
Which brought his audience to the question of whether he does drawings of his sculptures before he starts to work. “Yeah, but there are very few people I let see them. They are horrible,” he responded. “I take them to a technical drawer and then I try to make the sculpture come up to the original concept.”
Photo by Peninsula School of Art.