Out of the barn, into the sun: Jack Mays’ bronze sculptures to launch new Main Street ‘manufactory’

By Emily Silver, Enterprise arts editor, November 2011

Jack Mays works on wax sculptures in his converted garage in 1967. (Courtesy photo)

Jack Mays works on wax sculptures in his converted garage in 1967. (Courtesy photo)

Recent immigrants to Ferndale are familiar with him as the cartoonist for this newspaper. Others became inspired by him as a cancer survivor in Carrie Grant’s 2009 film “One More Line.” Some watched Jack Mays as he sat in a white plastic chair rain or shine for years making meticulously-detailed drawings of his home town.

But few people think of Jack Mays as a bronze sculptor, a side of the artist poised to be revealed Friday, November 18 when his personal collection of sculptures dating back to1965 will meet the light at Mind’s Eye Manufactory (393 Main Street).

Jack Mays takes inventory of his bronzes in his barn.  In the foreground, his self-portrait, pouring bronze, is pictured. (Enterprise staff photo)

Jack Mays takes inventory of his bronzes in his barn. In the foreground, his self-portrait, pouring bronze, is pictured. (Enterprise staff photo)

“The thing about it is the sheer volume,” said Mays as he walked to his barn where the sculptures have been gathering dust and ivy for ten years. He likens unearthing this work — citing friend’s Philip Haney’s brave hacking into the barn’s loft with a machete and weedcutters — to something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indeed, upon entering the former foundry, one is immediately struck by the violence and decay of the scene.

Miniature helmeted men and women are frozen in the act of wrestling, shooting, killing, dying, and riding motorcycles. Army jeeps and guns whose bumpy construction recalls Dr. Seuss, randomly emerge from between broken floorboards. Wedged around two furnaces, one kiln, a rusting power hammer and a sand foundry, or tangled in the intrusive ivy, are objects such as a strange “medieval gumball machine;” a distorted ferris wheel whose lone passenger is a monk; a pig cop with eagle talons; and a box of very creepy dolls. It’s as if Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” had been reconfigured for the twentieth century.

Jack Mays, born in Texas, attended graduate school first at Mills College then at University of Washington as a clay sculptor during the Vietnam War era. He longed to respond spontaneously to the current events that outraged him.

“At one point I flipped out,” he said, “Ultimately I decided I hated clay — nothing was working.” He picked up some wax and quickly modeled a soldier, then another and another. Eventually, the soldiers developed into a jarring aggregate of people and vehicles he called “War Machine,” and, with that, he says, “everything became clear.”

He had been thinking more and more about working in bronze. The ancient craft of lost wax casting, sometimes referred to as “investment casting,” basically comprises five steps: creating a wax sculpture, coating the sculpture with plaster to create a mold, melting the wax out of the mold, pouring molten metal into the mold, and recovering and finishing the final piece. At the time, lost wax casting was widely considered to be a “dead art,” says Mays, “and I single-handedly revived it.”

To cast “War Machine” he built a foundry at the University of Washington — one of the first in the U.S. in the twentieth century — and reorganized his life as a bronze sculptor.

Inspired by the rural lifestyle of British sculptor Kenneth Armitage, Mays returned to Ferndale in 1967, building the foundry in the barn behind his house. Extensive media coverage of the moon landing; anti-war demonstrations; violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago; killings at Kent State; Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations; and the voice of the NRA had a profound impact on his creative sensibilities.

“All my stuff at that time was total protest,” he says, pointing to the face of “Tricky Dick” emerging from a doctor’s bag with a syringe.

Throughout the 70s, his protest gradually evolved into images of bulldozers, tractors, and logging rigs and the decimation of the redwood forests. His consciousness was beginning to shift from national to local. He constructed a bronze glove to wear to The Ivanhoe to make a point about the “Hippy Scalps, $5” sign over the bar. He even built a diorama of Ferndale’s Main Street ascending to the Wildcat.

Jack Mays is pictured in 1968 wearing a 40-pound bronze gun belt he had made as part of his western movie props series. He always dreamed of writing his own western. (Courtesy photo)

Jack Mays is pictured in 1968 wearing a 40-pound bronze gun belt he had made as part of his western movie props series. He always dreamed of writing his own western. (Courtesy photo)

For money Mays made props and paraphernalia reminiscent of the Old West, such as cowboys and gun belts — a humorous take, perhaps, on the memorable bronzes of Frederic Remington.

One of the most interesting pieces is also his last bronze piece: Mays’ self-portrait in which he stands on the back of a pickup truck — driven by “any nude” — pouring bronze. In the flow of metal one recognizes many of his sculptures, including the self-portrait. “I’m creating myself,” he says with a chuckle.

He subsequently began blacksmithing and working with steel and opened a gallery at 325 Main where he exhibited it.

The 1992 earthquake serendipitously destroyed both his gallery and the foundry. He had already begun to feel frustrated that metal work was “99% technique and 1% creativity — he was “slave to the process.” The earthquake’s devastation led to a sea change: “I just walked away, ” he says.

He began drawing exclusively. Mays had actually already begun drawing as a birdwatcher — “that ‘total awareness’ thing,” he says. “You could know more about birds if you drew them.” He applied this concept to Ferndale, beginning with the earthquake damage, and for 15 years he diligently made panoramic colored pencil drawings of this town from top to bottom, in all kinds of weather and light, from diverse points of view. His perspectives are remarkable in that they were done completely by eye without use of a camera.

A comprehensive retrospective exhibition of these drawings at the fairgrounds spearheaded by Ferndale Chamber President Karen Pingitore and Enterprise Publisher Caroline Titus inaugurated Mays’ charitable foundation “Amaysing Grace” and kicked off the four-year process of filming “One More Line.”

Like many artists, Mays has never been “big on self-promotion,” saying he doesn’t mind promoting the work but is uncomfortable with being a public figure. However, he recognizes his success with transcending cancer — in 2004 he was given three months to live — can be inspiring to others who are ill.

Mays uses the phrase “not for everyone,” quoting Herman Hesse’s book Steppenwolf (which we were all reading in the 70’s) when describing his work. He plans to present his sculptures in a way that will reconstruct a sense of the cycle of life and decay of which he has become increasingly aware. The pitted green-oxidized bronze will be cleaned as little as possible to preserve the patina gained with the passage of time. Mays likes the idea his “empire will die with him, molding and rotting at the same rate.”

Marc Daniels, who, with his wife Leah owns Mind’s Eye Manufactory, proposed showing Mays’ sculptures to launch his business in the historic Hart building previously occupied by Hobart Brown. Mays, whose first exhibition was in Hobart’s building even before Hobart’s gallery formally opened, considers the staging of his work in the new creative venue as symbolic of the cyclic resurgence of Ferndale as an art town. “This was the hottest art spot between San Francisco and Portland between 1968 and 1975,” he says. “Everything runs a course.”

There will be an opening reception for Mays’ sculpture show from 6 pm to midnight on November 18. Music will be provided by the Mind’s Eye Manufactory house band (Jiordi Rosales, Peter Tatum, and Casey Brazfield). These energetic young men have also been indispensable in moving the heavy bronze pieces from barn to town and putting the finishing touches on the new exhibition space, said Marc Daniels.

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