Sculptor Forges Success From Visions in Steel

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

Ted Gall never figured on being a noted sculptor who could live quite comfortably off money from his art.

Growing up in a working downtown Chicago neighborhood, Gall never heard anyone talk about showings at uptown Miami galleries or corporate art commissions or European clients who'd seek to have their fantasies forged in bronze or cut in steel.

No, growing up, Ted Gall made it through high school and went straight to work in a telephone factory. His job there was to tune phone bells by grinding edges off the cast gongs that struck them. He knows now in this beep-beep age that he'd be out of work and broke and stuck if he'd remained a $140-a-week tuner.

So he followed up on a strength that had evidenced itself in childhood: drawing. His parents, though not formally educated, had noticed Gall's ability early on and sent him, at age 12, to summer classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gall took a pay cut in his early 20s to move from gong-grinding to drafting, and, after that, another cut to work as an apprentice in an animation studio. In animation, he learned to work "flat," in the two dimensions of drawn characters; and "deep," in the 3-D of actual models made to change in sequence. Without particularly knowing it, Gall found himself working as a commercial sculptor.

He rented a garage in which he could explore sculptural notions of his own. He'd work in the studio by day, sculpt at night, and some of his own pieces--broad-shouldered heroic figures, mostly--worked. Without a college degree, Gall started teaching night classes at Chicago colleges.

Things could have gone on like this forever. Few artists ever have the resources and vision to produce enough original work to subsidize a life and, as Gall was discovering, a family. But then the phone rang.

It was a gasket factory in Skokie, Ill., just outside Chicago. The owner of the place liked art, believed in art. He wanted Gall to come on board full time as the Felpro gasket company's artist-in-residence, employing industrial scrap from punch presses and giant sheet cutting machines in the fabrication of, well, fine art.

Gall did it. He reported to Skokie and produced sculptures that Felpro gave to clients, placed within the factory, set permanently into the grounds surrounding the plant. His largest and perhaps most successful Felpro piece--a 28-by-8-by-3-foot steel engine gasket--was presented to the city of Skokie, which placed it in a playground. It juts up from the ground, on a tilt, as if a relic on a dig. Its mass and weight are defied by the appearance that it was lightly tossed off in some former age of hot-rodding giants. Happily, it swarms with tiny children who hide in its holes, slide on its curves, hang from its edges. It is rakishly modern, industrially indigenous, endlessly involving.

Gall started getting noticed. While his Felpro work tended to be wrought with abstraction, other pieces were figurative, if slightly surreal. They would foreshadow his super-muscular man, heroic in dimension, sprouting wings; or his godlike figure pedaling into space on a flywheel, yet so insecure as to be holding a mask with which to change identities.

Gall's work started to show up at galleries in Florida and the Midwest and California and in private collections nationwide. His work appeared at universities and in corporate lobbies and in city parks. He weaned himself somewhat from Felpro, arguably among the last of a breed of 19th Century-style patrons, and did more and more on his own.

That's when he moved to Ojai, six years ago. His wife's family had moved here. "I never thought of being in Ojai to have Ojai support my art," says Gall. "That would be impossible. It's just a really nice place. I sell mostly in Florida and the Midwest, with some in California."

Six or seven days a week Gall walks from his hilltop house down an embankment of cactus and fruit trees to a mammoth studio. There, he welds, cuts, hammers out originals that get molded in rubber, cast in wax, refined further, and then driven to an Oxnard foundry for casting in bronze or stainless steel.

The smaller of his pieces--a three-inch-high bust with a metaphor of life's treadmill mounted atop its head--sell for under $2,000. The larger of the pieces--a 6-foot "Puppet Man" atop a pedestal holding an imprisoned figure by cable below--go for around $35,000. Many of the pieces feature figures wearing or holding masks. If they all beg one theme it would be the mystery of human identity.

The sculptures, like Gall, are everywhere: displayed in and outside the studio, being readied for shipment to moneyed markets ripe for his art.

To Gall, it all kind of makes sense, if a humbling version of it to a Chicago street kid who once worked the gong line, who at 53 feels his lack of formal education renders him at times inarticulate. Yet from here, in the silent hills above Ojai, Gall has no trouble making it plain that he has no delusions about art or life, that his own identity is bell-clear: "I work very hard; it's part of my ethic. But I know that so many people have to work harder than I do and yet get a lot less from life."

He pauses a moment. He scans the studio, sees a nearly completed triptych for a Swiss baron, notes the design faxes he sends to Skokie in his week-a-month arrangement with Felpro. Soon, he'll have to return to posh Coconut Grove, Fla., to a gallery where patrons will seek to commission him.

"You ever meet people where things have just happened?" asks Ted Gall. "That's been my life. I'm grateful."

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