Jerry Monteith

Jerry Monteith, professor of sculpture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, truly does sculpt large and small. He’s holding one of his Attractors, a fly-fishing fly inspired work. In the background are several of his larger (but not his largest) sculptures, including Red Devil, which appears to be “eyeballing” the artist.  (Photo by Russell Bailey)

February 08, 2016

Sculpture professor forms niche in art world

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – There was the time he brought a piece of his art to a gallery in his backpack, hoping to show it to the curator and get an exhibition. It worked. It might not be the standard way to go about things, but it worked. 

Nowadays, galleries come to Jerry Monteith asking him to send along art for exhibitions and shows. Not all the time – he said he still has to work at it to get his art in front of people. But it’s a far cry from his backpack days. 

Monteith is director of graduate studies and professor of sculpture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His latest exhibition, running now through March 20 at the Fort Collins Museum of Art in Colorado, is Natural Shift, an invitational, four-person exhibition featuring artists working with nature-inspired forms. He’s got five large pieces in the Natural Shift show, including one that required him to build the largest shipping box he’s ever built.

It’s a good fit for Monteith. Not only does each piece of art have a story, but in many cases there is a story attached to the material for the art. Take “Sweep” for instance – a caramel-colored sculpture supported by what might be a mermaid’s tail or maybe a beaver’s, with scales carved in natural lines. That’s poplar wood, Monteith said, and it came from two large trees taken down to make room for a new apartment building in Carbondale. Standing next to it is “Red Devil,” a mostly red sculpture with a sideways “mouth” and one large, stemmed, pointy-lashed eye. That one is hornbeam and persimmon and ash, and some of the wood came from Monteith’s own yard when, sadly, he had to take down a tree.

He loves wood, he said, both as trees and as art material. In his early days, he imposed on his wood sculptures the forms he saw in his mind, highlighting the wood grain and shaping the wood the way he wanted. These days he’s inclined to let the wood guide him, especially if it’s wood he’s cutting himself.

“The natural forms in wood can kick off ideas,” he said. “That branch might resemble a gesture or that piece a body part. Your page is no longer blank, you have a place to start. There are some pretty evocative forms in nature.”

Some of Monteith’s pieces are giant. The dissembled pieces of “Array,” a painted steel installation formerly at Dallas Contemporary, a Texas gallery, weigh more than 475 pounds each and give the impression of dinosaur bones. And “Lightspill,” a sites-specific commissioned installation at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in Mt. Vernon, Ill., was big enough for people to walk into and over – indeed, that was the idea.

He also works on much smaller pieces. He calls them “Attractors.” They are inspired by flies used in fly fishing. Each piece – and he has well over 100 – is meticulously detailed with an array of natural and found materials, mostly with a base of metal or wire. This one has golden pheasant feather, goose biots (little pieces from wing feathers) and a woven wire body. This other one is made of pieces from medicine bottles, the ribs from a Powerade bottle, a broken Otter Box cell phone cover, mink fur and moose hair. He has tackle boxes full of materials.

To say they are unique is to state the obvious. Each Attractor looks like it could be alive, even if in a science fiction story or fantasy dreamland of whimsical, funny, maybe-a-little-bit-alarming creatures.

“They are all fantasy and not meant to look like anything from the natural world,” he said. “I’ve tried to make more than one of each type, or pattern in fly-tying terminology, but I can’t. I always end up making each one unique.”

He likes to work on more than one at a time. Keeping busy, he says, is one way to keep creativity at the surface.

“I don’t really get creativity-block,” he said. “Maybe on an individual piece, sometimes. But it seems there is always something I can do.”

Monteith found art early and began to get serious about it in high school. He was always drawing and painting, teaching himself oils and watercolors. And then, as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, two things happened: one, he was frustrated by the large, self-described “ugly” painting he was making; and two, he took a sculpture class.

“I never looked back,” he said. He went on to the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he honed his techniques. But. “I had a pretty big bill by the end,” he said. “I had to figure out a way to pay it back.”

He joined the Teamsters Union and drove a lumber truck. He installed offices. And then he went to Great Falls, Mont., as an artist-in-residence responsible for making and teaching art in area schools. There were two positions, he said, one for an urban-based artist and one for the rural schools. He was the rural artist. Mary Ellen Watkin was the urban artist, and she later became his wife.

They were artists-in-residence for a couple years, then he was curator of exhibits at the Paris Gibson Art Center in Great Falls, then visiting professor at the University of Montana. He was part of the “growth and glory” years of the Washington Project for the Arts from 1984 to 1988. He worked hard during those years to support other artists, even building an indoor café as part of an installation for Terry Allen. He came to SIU in 1990 as assistant professor of art.

During all of that time, he was making art and he was fighting for gallery space – a lot of gallery space. His first solo show was at the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, D.C. (that’s the one where he brought art in his backpack), and he continued to exhibit there regularly through 1995, until the gallery closed its doors. His work also appeared in galleries and sculpture walks all over the country, including the Chicago Botanical Gardens, Klein Gallery in Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Metropolitan Gallery in St. Louis and many others.

He earned grants and awards and commissions, including two fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and artist residencies from Caldera in Oregon and the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming.

But maybe the exhibit venue that meant the most was OK Harris in New York City, where his Attractors debuted in an exhibition that ran Nov. 2-Dec. 7, 2013. Ivan Karp founded the gallery, and in the art world it was said he may have looked at more art than anyone in the city. Monteith said he corresponded with Karp especially through his years as a young artist, and he knew that if he showed something to Karp, Karp at least would look at it. Not everyone did – often, an artist had to know someone who knew someone to get a look from a large gallery.

OK Harris closed in 2014. When it did, the gallery released a retrospective book, “45 Years at OK Harris.” Monteith is in it. “It was always a dream for me to be in this gallery,” he said. “I’m gratified to be included in the book.”

“You can feel like you are in the wilderness if your art isn’t being shown,” Monteith said. “It’s easy to get lost. It’s a temptation to look at what everyone else is doing, or to stay with whatever you were successful with first. But I find if you pay attention to that, you lose yourself. You have to stay on your own path. You have to hold the long view of your work.”