"People want a piece of this country," says sculptor and designer Arnold Goldstein.
But anyone wanting a piece may have to see Goldstein first, because judging from his cramped Manhattan studio, he seems to have most of them.
The country that Goldstein refers to and that has inspired his art is one in which cowboys rode the range and the buffalo roamed. It was in this rough, unchartered territory that we sometimes romanticize as the Old West that our predecessors carved hard, self-sufficient lives with tools and implements forged by hands rather than machines.
Blocking out the walls in Goldstein's 1,600-square-foot studio are hundreds of those tools. There are 500 pieces, some dating to the 18th Century, but at one time there were 2,000. "I got rid of the mistakes. I got rid of the learning ones," Goldstein says.
The tools that remain form tapestries of ancient iron and wood that ironically create the stark visual impact of modern art. Fish and eel gigs used for spearing fish, rug beaters, antique hacksaws and numerous other rudimentary but ingenious tools have been transformed by Goldstein into mini-sculptures.
Beyond their artistic applications, the tools have personal implications. Goldstein's nine-year quest for antique tools "backs up to my father. He was very mechanical. He worked as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard," says Goldstein, who was born in the Bronx and moved to Florida as a youngster.
Uprooted in his youth by his parents' divorce, Goldstein felt further cut off from a familial history when his father's tools were given away after his death. Although Goldstein never recovered any of the tools, symbolically he did. "I finally got my father's tools. They made me feel like I had roots," he says of his collection.
Turning rusting metal into art is the latest turn Goldstein's career has taken. Innumerable other remnants and reproductions of the past crowd the floor and corners of his studio. Antique spurs, belts, holsters and leather chaps are interspersed with an array of modern-day Western jewelry, hardware and sculptures inspired by the Old West.
Aside from the typical boyhood infatuation with cowboys, Goldstein's interest in Western design and lifestyle was inspired by a chance encounter in 1968 with a then-unknown fashion designer named Ralph Lauren.
It was during a project designing the interior of a men's clothing store that Goldstein, who has a degree in architecture, ran into Lauren. The young designer, who was pushing a line of ties, happened to notice a bola tie and belt buckle Goldstein was wearing. Ten years later, Goldstein was invited to design a line of belt buckles and bola ties for Lauren's first Western collection.
Since then, Goldstein has been designing his own line of pewter and silver Western jewelry, and two years ago he added his Western-motif Wrought in America series of pewter hardware.
Yet, despite the many forms his art takes, the theme is the same, Goldstein says. "It has to do with belonging, with roots." His works, he says, are "little caresses of the past, nourishing touches" that provide "a window of what we are made of and where we came from."