While I’m friends with a lot of artists in the Burning Man community in New York City and think many of them are very talented, I’m still often turned off by the insular and self-celebratory nature of this scene and others like it. The tendency to assume that all the good, currently relevant art and creativity is happening within the scene and nowhere else. And if anyone, God forbid, is creating something outside of the scene, they must at once get involved in the community.
Some people need such a community of like-minded people and artists in order to thrive. For others, some aloneness and detachment from the bustle of big cities and scenes might be more inspiring. There are plenty of talented artists out there that are living in seclusion in the middle of nowhere and creating great, original works of art.
Case in point: Bijan Mahmoodi, an artist of Iranian origin, who has been living on a sprawling plot of land in a small town in upstate New York (near the Berkshires) for the past 27 years. The land contains over 100 pieces of original metallic sculptures, some small, some gigantic, that are bent and welded and strung together to look like birds, people, knights, globes, chairs, armor, and various abstract characters that seem to have surrealist and cubist influences.
Bijan has playful kind eyes, and shaggy gray hair that offers a stark contrast to his dark eyebrows. He looks very fit for his age, presumably because he is constantly working with some of these giant pieces of metal and getting them to bend, break, fold and do his bidding. The sculptures seem like they’d take Herculean strength to make, but this Hercules has had help from machines that bend metal. He says he makes the sculptures by welding together several separately produced pieces, as many of them won’t fit in the workshop in their entirety.
He moved to Austerlitz, New York and had the site registered as a museum (the Circle Museum and Sculpture Park) after living in New York City for a few years, where he worked as a cab driver by night (“I’d get lost all the time,” he says) and at a foundation that gave grants to college students. He claims he was bad at that job, too. “Anybody who came in, I wanted to give them grants and my boss would say, ‘You know you can’t just give money to everyone who walks in here.’”
He has also lived in Brighton, England, where he moved to study after leaving Iran in 1978. Large pieces of land, like the one he found in Austerlitz, weren’t available there and quality metal was also hard to come by in England. “They don’t have an industry for metal, they got rid of all their old metal,” he says. In his Sculpture Park, he claims to have metal that dates back to the Pilgrim days.
Cheap scrap metal is becoming hard to come by in the U.S. too, as prices soared over the past four years. China’s rapidly growing economy needs metal for building infrastructure, and the country is willing to pay top dollar for it. Many hedge funds and investment managers have been trading heavily in metal-based exchange traded funds (basically, mutual funds that trade on an exchange, like a stock), which has also driven up the prices of metal. Buying and selling metal is akin to currency trading nowadays, Bijan says. “The prices are always changing.”
Still, neighbors and friends that have seen Bijan’s work sometimes donate pieces of metal to him when they happen to come upon the ones that can be used. The owner of a metal company that recently moved away from the Berkshires had donated some scrap metal to Bijan. “The manager came here and said, ‘I have all this stainless metal in my truck. It’s very expensive, but do you want it?’” Bijan recalls. He told the manager he didn’t have much money. The metal company manager gave it to him for free.
Another friend recently donated a golf cart to help Bijan move the metal back and forth. The pieces of metal, and certainly the sculptures themselves, are very heavy and many people that commit to buying one end up complaining that they’re difficult to transport. (Though a Bobcat can usually get the job done.) Some musicians who had recently bought a sculpture came in and loaded it up quickly. It was easy for them, since they’re used to dealing with heavy equipment, Bijan explains.
He lives alone in his house/studio, which also contains numerous paintings, and says he has a girlfriend who occasionally comes to visit, “until she gets sick of me,” he jokes. She does the marketing for his museum. There is no entrance fee, save for a $5 suggested donation. Bijan usually sells a few pieces of sculpture or paintings per year.
Metal has been his go-to medium for some time, but he’s doing a lot more painting now and is also planning to start working on stone sculptures, due to the issues with metal prices. “Little by little, I’m switching to some stone and painting. But I have some metal saved,” he says. “Art is good that way. If you can’t work in one medium, you can always switch to another.”
I’ve been to the sculpture park three times now and recently drove up again with a friend who lives about an hour away in Massachusetts to show him the place. When he saw the sculptures, he said, “You can’t help but look at them and smile.”
Given the name of the museum, the Sculpture Park contains a lot of circles: metallic and rubber circles, tires, spheres, globes, etc. Friends and other museum visitors will also bring Bijan circles of various sorts that they happen to find. He says he always used to draw circles when he was a kid. I asked him about his obsession with circles, given my own penchant for them (as documented in that story I wrote in college). “Well, circles are everything around us. Atoms and sub atoms, planets,” he says. “Everything is a circle. We don’t see it here, but when we go away from Earth, everything becomes a circle.” Ahhh… yes. He’s speaking my language.
(Photos by yours truly & C.)