By CHRIS COPLEY
1:07 PM PST, February 22, 2013
Scott Cawood peered closely at his sculpture — the figure of a woman — and tinkered with the elbow. He looked intent, focused.
"This is about the third assemblage I've had on her elbow," he said. "I've taken two of them off. I didn't like them."
Cawood, 59, a sculptor who works in metal, is working on a commission — oversize figures of a man and a woman lifting up a baby. The figures are lifelike and muscular, but semi-mechanical. They're intended to show a synthesis of natural and mechanical parts. When complete, the sculpture will stand in the new office of The Center for Joint Surgery and Sports Medicine, near Hagerstown.
With this piece, Cawood said he's pushing into new artistic territory. Most of his art has centered on using found objects — birds made with saw blades and windshield wipers or women's shoes made of textured steel plate and pizza cutters. His work was clever and whimsical. People loved it.
But Cawood said he wanted to express something deeper, more emotional.
"It's not a matter of going, 'Oh, OK,' (and following assembly directions). It's like I've evolved down to where I'm at," he said. "This has been a magical mystery tour."
Show and tell
Cawood opens his studio near Sharpsburg to the public on the first Saturday of each month from noon to 5 p.m. He shows visitors his work — completed pieces and works still in process. He talks about art. He talks about history. He talks about life.
In particular, Cawood likes talking about his work, about his thought process, about his materials.
"In a gallery, I don't feel people know what I do. When I go to explain it, I say, 'This (skin) is one of those 275-gallon oil tanks.' But you can see I lost them. They just go (blank-faced)," he said. "Here, I just march them over here and put their hand on it, and they go, ‘Oh!' The light comes on. In the gallery, they're just confused."
Cawood's home and studio-shed are low-key. The gleaming, 8-foot-tall commissioned sculpture is surrounded by shelves of dull gray and rust-red scrap metal — chains, gears, rods, hammer heads, engine parts and more. Door frames, fuel tanks, industrial equipment and other scrap metal objects wait outside the shed.
Found-object sculptures are displayed in Cawood's rustic house and compact garden. A scarecrow made from a shovel and engine parts. A dragon-head gas tank for a motorcycle made from industrial steel shelving. An owl made from mechanical springs.
Everywhere is art or the rough, raw materials for art.
Conversation and education
Cawood likes the informal approach to his open studio.
"Some people come here and they're disappointed. They're expecting some nice place," he said. "These two women came one time, and ... they walked in, and they said, 'This is it? This is just junk. Don't you have a gift shop?'"
There is no gift shop, Cawood said with a laugh. Many of his pieces are for sale, and he's sold several during open studio sessions. Cawood also raises money for local food banks. For a $15 donation to Maryland Food Bank, he gives small, original sculptures.
But Cawood isn't trying to get rich. His biggest thrill is talking about his art.
"Most people who come are astonished. They suck in their breath," he said. "Some people come back and they bring other people with them. The people who come back are the people who are interested. In a gallery, it's like talking to a wall. Here, they get it. They're interested."
Cawood said — only half-way kidding — there should be a state-wide agreement by all Maryland artists to welcome the public into their workplaces. It would be good for artists and good for the public, too.
"For one thing, it helps the art education of the population. because there is none anymore. Very little in schools," he said. "Here, people know who I am. As an artist, it's nice to be understood like that. In a gallery, I might as well have a bag over my head for all it matters. Once you walk in here, you can tell more about my work that anything I can say in a gallery."
Man of steel
Cawood likes making things with metal.
"I like steel. It just works nice," he said. "These oil tanks, you can (cut a piece), heat it up, put a crease in it. It won't tear and anything. It bends right where you want it to bend. You get a nice, tight crease and it won't tear."
He's worked with aluminum, copper, brass and other metals. But they don't have the structure Cawood wants. They tear. They don't keep their shape.
"They got too much dirt. I call them dirty metals. That's why steel is so wonderful. It's clean. Even though," he said, with a laugh. "I look like a coal miner most of the time. It's dirty in that way."
Cawood didn't start out to make metal art. He went into the U.S. Coast Guard just to have a job.
"They sent me to a Navy school for aviaiton mechanics — sheet metal, repairing airframes. Almost all aluminum," he said. "But it's all the same processes of bending and welding. It's just different material."
After his stint in the service, Cawood did odd jobs. Eventually, in his mid-30s, he worked in Shepherds-town, W.Va., with a guy making museum mounts and armatures.
"He needed somebody to run his steel shop. I brushed up on my steel and went to work for him," Cawood said. "I started spending a lot of time in art museums. And I started getting really interested in art for the first time in my life."
Cawood made a few pieces of metal art using scrap mechanical parts. People liked his work. Galleries organized shows for him. He expanded his metal skills by working with Danny Hurwitz, a master blacksmith in Brownsville.
"He did a lot of stuff in New York — European-style scrollwork, old-school stuff. I learned a lot from him," he said. "Then I was doing blacksmithing just to support my art habit. Eventually the art just took over."
Showing and selling in galleries was good money, sometimes, but Cawood soured on it.
"I just got so horrified by it. It's always hard to get paid. And gallery owners never come here to see what I do," he said. "Then you start selling your stuff, and they want you to make stuff that sells. It's hard not to fall into that when the money starts rolling. But it's not good for you. You get stuck."
Giving warmth to cold steel
A few years ago, Cawood had a realization. While viewing a piece of video art at American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, he found himself powerfully moved. He realized his work didn't have that emotional punch.
"(I saw) that the way to convey emotions is through human faces. Everybody relates more to that than anything," he said. "(I wanted to show) the sad undercurrent of life, like the complete bareness of the soul. And I thought, ‘Who's emotional? Who's got faces that say what I'm trying to get to?'"
He said he began studying people's faces, looking for raw emotion and depth of soul. Finally, listening to blues music one night while paging through a book of early blues musicians, he found what he wanted.
"I started looking at those faces. And I said, 'Ah, that's it. It's those guys.' Their faces were just wrought with emotion. All their stories. It's all in there," he said. "So that's what started it."
Cawood set out to make busts of bluesmen. He developed a technique of building an armature for a head-and-shoulders sculpture, then welding pieces of sheet steel as skin. Rusty, old fuel oil tanks provided sheet metal with skin-like texture. He made three busts and showed visitors during his open studios.
Then he got the commission he's working on now.
"That's what I mean about not getting stuck. I could stay doing my old stuff and sell it all day long. People love it. It's easy. I could make more money doing it. I like it," he said. "But I like it like that," and he pointed to the commissioned statue. "I like it incorporated into the lifelike figures."
Opening a studio to visitors doesn't always lead directly to making money. Sometimes there's just good conversation or a chance to open someone's eyes to art or the expressive possibilities of metal. But that's fine with Cawood.
"I always tell other artists (to host open studios), and they're like,'Yeah,' but they never do it," he said. "But I'm going to do it. You can change the world one person at a time."
If you go ...
WHAT: Open studio
WHEN: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 2
WHERE: Scott Cawood’s studio, 3829 Harpers Ferry Road, south of Sharpsburg
COST: Free admission
CONTACT: Call 301-432-2131 or go to www.cawoodart.com.