In the mid-’90s, James Kitchen worked for his brother Denis at Kitchen Sink Press, a widely respected underground comic publishing venture in the Valley.
“It was a high-stress job,” says Kitchen. He wanted to move into something without the pressures of publishing, and came up with the answer while he was on vacation at the seaside. He looked around for something to do, and saw possibilities in the rocks strewn around the sand.
“I just started stacking rocks,” he says. By the end of the day, he’d created interesting stone configurations all over the beach. He got a three-word comment about them that, he says, “changed his life.”
A woman who turned out to be an art professor from upstate New York started taking pictures for her class to see, and asked Kitchen, “Who’s the artist?”
Kitchen, who’s an animated six foot five, comes alive when he says, “She left, and I said, ‘That’s it! I want to be an artist!’”
That appears to have been an easy transformation for Kitchen. That ease doesn’t seem surprising when you chat with him. Many a subject prompts his thinking, from history to quantum mechanics, and his sculpture appears to work as the ultimate vehicle for his expression and manifestation of such strands. He’s also, he explains, a voracious reader and a longtime musician with some 100 instruments to choose from (his James Kitchen and The Appliances plays Goshen Town Hall Feb. 10).
“I’ve been a poet, a writer,” he says. “I’ve tried a lot of creative things.”
The bringing together of disparate ideas and objects is the clearest theme in Kitchen’s work. In the wake of his experimentation with stacking stone, he taught himself to weld and started shaping conglomerations of metal artifacts of all kinds into large-scale objects.
The results are often spectacular. Gears spill out, and old tools, parts and scraps of all kind take on a second, repurposed life. From a distance, Kitchen’s works often seem like monumental remnants of a steampunk past that never was. Some point dramatically into the sky, and others hang in large metal hoops (wagon wheels?). Some clearly resemble other objects, like Kitchen’s metal Saturn and a retro-futuristic cannon.
All of them get yet more interesting at close range, when the old functions of the many parts become obvious—a bolt and a ladle here, a shovel blade and drill bit there. One of the roles Kitchen claims in his work is historian, and it’s clear why. His raw material is locally acquired, at auctions, antique shops and farms. It’s the metal remains of the Valley’s agricultural past.
“Half the time is spent looking for stuff,” Kitchen explains. “I’m on a first-name basis with recyclers. The best source is farmers who lived through the Great Depression. Every farm has a corner where stuff got thrown. A ’32 Studebaker fender is sticking out next to tractor parts.”
Since he comes home with truckloads of stuff most people would consider junk, Kitchen says “I tell my wife it’s not junk, it’s inventory.”
Of course, the number of old farm piles from which to stock that inventory is not infinite, and Kitchen says, “It’s getting tougher and tougher to find stuff. It’s getting scary.”
He says that’s because so much scrap metal is shipped to China now. “I’m suddenly part of the global economy. Metal went from around two cents a pound to 42 cents.”
Kitchen sees the gradual disappearance of old farm piles as evidence of a change in mentality. “People don’t fix anything any more. It’s cheaper to buy a new shovel for eight bucks when it breaks.”
When he’s acquiring new material, Kitchen often sees evidence of the very different habits of a century ago. “A farmer 100 years ago could fix anything. Things are wired together carefully.” When he sees that kind of meticulous care, says Kitchen, “I can see this guy [who made the repair]. I know him!”
That kind of intuitive connection with what might at first seem like impersonal objects is part of what drives Kitchen’s production. He says that at first he picked material with its eventual artistic role in mind. That’s changed: “It’s hard to articulate the inner process. I just play with the metal.” He demonstrates with imaginary items, explaining that eventually they reveal how they should go together. “It’s the subconscious,” he says. “It’s smarter than we are. It’s when you’re not thinking that the magic happens.” Sometimes, he says, “I feel like a clumsy magician.”
Sometimes it’s even deeper currents that drive Kitchen. “I’m a voracious reader,” he says. “I love physics. Einstein said imagination’s more important than knowledge.”
That thought led Kitchen to no small undertaking. He told himself that, for one piece, “I’m going to solve the riddle of the universe.”
The result, “Universe Revealed,” is particularly intriguing: an elegant conglomeration of parts with something akin to a fountain of gears blossoming up from its base. Something must have resonated among all those parts—he was pleased and surprised, he says, when, on the sculpture’s first day on exhibition, “The Dalai Lama was looking at it!”
It’s largely thanks to Kitchen’s very public choice of exhibition spaces that such serendipitous encounters can happen. His work sat in the front yard of the old Hampshire County courthouse (now Hampshire Council of Governments) on Northampton’s Main Street for some time, and right now his sculpture is on display all over downtown Springfield. The current Springfield lineup—a slew of outdoor sculptures and an indoor exhibition of around 60—is in the second of three phases, and slated to continue for at least several more months. The third phase involves permanent installations, including that of a giant sundial whose gnomon is a steel I-beam from the World Trade Centers. The whole project is a collaboration with the Springfield BID and downtown developers. Kitchen says he paid to install the works himself, and the city of Springfield itself is not funding the effort.
Kitchen is thoughtful about the role of public art, and says part of the unique challenge it offers him as an artist is that he’s not on hand to explain anything. The art also inevitably has to speak to a broad range of viewers. Though he’s usually not there to explain, he is sometimes there in a different capacity: “People don’t usually know who I am, so I can stand and listen and get feedback.”
Watching how kids reacted to his Saturn piece, Kitchen explains, led to his adding new pieces they could play with, things like a faucet that still turns.
Kitchen is the kind of artist who leaks ideas and connections all the time, and he envisions himself as a man whose work serves more than one function, including recycling and preservation of history. He is, in a very real sense, reconfiguring pieces of the past. In Springfield, he hopes to further the sense of history by making it a very local affair. In his newest works for downtown (including the World Trade Center beam and a metal whirlwind commemorating the tornado that ripped through the South End), he plans to incorporate Springfield material. He points out that Springfield is home to many inventions, including the monkey wrench. Viewers can therefore expect to see, among other things, a wrench in the works.•
Kitchen’s work can be seen at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton and Artist Group Gallery in Springfield’s Tower Square, as well as 32 outdoor installations in downtown Springfield.
James Kitchen and The Appliances plays Goshen Town Hall Feb. 10 at 2 p.m.
For more on James Kitchen, visit www.jameskitchen.com.