Mike Cook is a sculptor who is passionate about recycled metal. After a lifetime working in the public and private sectors, where, among other things, he commissioned public art for the Portland Development Commission and managed the corporate art program at Mentor Graphics. He is now devoting his retirement to making his own art. His sculpture has been shown on the North Coast at CART’M Recycling’s Trash Bash, CBAA Green/Verde, Shadow and Light, and Clatsop CC Student 3D. Chantal Bilodeau asked Mike to talk a little bit about his inspiration, his process, and why artists should address climate change.
What inspired you to start working with recycled metals?
When I was little, our Detroit home and yard was very tidy. But we looked out into Mr. Miller’s yard strewn with junk metal. My mom would say, “Just look at your room. You don’t want to grow up like Mr. Miller, do you?” I guess I did. Detroit itself had its influences: Iron Country, ore freighters, cars. My family, then and today, has always been committed to recycling. So as I committed my retirement to art, starting with life drawing, I found working with metals at the recycling center most congenial. It flowed for me. Unlike stock metals, each piece of recycled metal had a story already built in that spoke to me – the pitting, rust taking it back through its recycled lives – starting from the earth and returning as rust. I’ve been tempted to move towards more finished, form based volumes, but with the time left in this life, I think I’ll just stick with the pits and rust.
In the last year, you have been focusing on climate change. Specifically, how does your work engage that issue?
I noticed that my work was moving in that direction on its own, dictated by my stock of materials. It started with the Exhaust series, then Arc – which I also thought of as Ark of the Lost Remnant – then Engage the Scavenger and Atmosphere. Parallel with, and preceding this movement, I began noticing climate change – the imperative beginning with an image in National Geographic of a Russian tourist ship visiting the North Pole in open water. With the imperative of grandchildren and creeping age and arthritis, I decided I’d better focus my work. With this first directed piece, Awakening, I found some of the metaphors I started with faded and others appeared along the way. Others may look at the piece and come away with different impressions, even non-climate stories. So instead of tackling climate change directly, I see it as an awakening, in me, and likely in civilization and in art – more of a flow, and a desire to reinforce that flow. Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises reinforces this idea. A piece sitting here in Manzanita, Oregon may impact me and a couple of others – thus my emphasis on interaction with other artists and exposure via the internet.
What can sculpture offer that is perhaps different from other art forms?
I don’t think that sculpture has a particular advantage in addressing climate change. For me, I don’t seem to have a choice. It’s what I can do to express myself. I’m sure these characteristics can be addressed more effectively in volumes I’ll never see. But for me, it’s tactile, invites investigation, presents infinite vantage points and perspectives. It directly addresses space, time, gravity, light and sometimes sound. The material itself, often of the earth, contains its own metaphor. It demands strength, loves hammers and chisels and flame. It’s hard to undo or redo. I get to work with folks, body shops, muffler shops, junk yards. It’s dangerous, sometimes deadly. Thanks for this question. I love it.
Engage the Scavenger – stainless exhaust and copper water pipe
What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?
Trust. Trust in what you know and love. Trust that life has a flow, that you have a place, and just jump in. Trust your ability to seek, to see and listen and know the way. For me that has meant: trust, take a step, trust, engage, trust, assess, trust, take another step, trust.
What gives you hope?
That there’s something to trust.
Through community involvement, I’ve found that as an individual, and even more as part of a movement, it’s possible to effect change, from housing for the homeless to nuclear disarmament.
Through my art I’ve found that I don’t create. I follow paths. I find I have the ability to discern a path that works. And I find that any step taken can ultimately, and likely with some pain, be made to work. I start with something, then the material or my muse pushes me, I respond and go on and it’s right. It’s OK. It seems these paths already exist and I just find them and execute. I figure it’s the same for the planet, for civilization; the path of evolution has always worked – pressure and then a next step for life, except this time the step is ours. What a time to be alive.
Atmosphere – rusted fender and exhaust fragments
Artists and Climate Change is a blog by playwright Chantal Bilodeau that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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