Sculptor Lawrence Feir talks about creativity, cancer, and grace
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Lawrence Feir, a New York native and now a Greensboro, NC-based sculptor and lifelong artist, will say he came out of the womb with a crayon in hand.
But he wasn’t satisfied with coloring for very long. He quickly transitioned to what he describes as “the harder stuff” – charcoal, paint, pastels and woodworking.
From his teen years drawing album art on denim jackets to jewelry-making to traveling the world photographing airplanes for the airline industry, Feir has always found a way to make a living through art. Even if it was, at times, a modest one.
He eventually found his way to working with steel and metal, which is his primary medium today. A cancer diagnosis and treatment, followed by depression and then the forced isolation of the current pandemic has impacted Feir’s creativity and output.
The construction of a koi pond at his home and the discovery that he likes to experiment with cooking have challenged him creatively, while healing his spirit.
Whether he’s painting, sculpting or cooking, Feir always strives to make his work inspirational.
“I hope that my work inspires other people and maybe makes this world a little better place to live, quietly and with grace,” he says.
Follow our conversation about his artistic journey and what inspires him below.
First, tell us about your medium, how do you identify yourself as an artist?
I work in welded steel, found objects and some glass. My work is sculptural, figurative. It starts by scouring the scrap yards, flea markets and second hand shops where I accumulate a mixture of different materials before starting the process of welding together hundreds of different artifacts. Can openers, nails, old tools, industrial effluvia, each item unique. I select a piece from the mixture and fit it into the picture, into a finished welded steel human torso.
How long have you been creating art?
I came out of the womb with a crayon in my hand. While some young children were content with coloring books and GI Joes, I was always daydreaming and drawing pictures and building stuff. It started innocently enough with pencils, but quickly led to harder stuff. Pretty soon I had discovered charcoal, paint, pastels and woodworking. Working creatively in welded steel and glass would come later in life.
How long has art been your career?
My first real job other than mowing lawns and shoveling driveways around my Long Island, New York neighborhood was as an artist. It was trendy in the late 70s for young people to have jean jackets emblazoned with their favorite rock and roll band on the back. I struck a deal with a local record store to display a few of my works. Pretty soon I was in business, busy in the basement of my parents’ house painting on denim while the music of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and other sounds of the 60s wafted from the stereo.
In the late eighties I opened a silver jewelry shop in Long Island, having learned the craft while attending UMASS Amherst. I quickly lost interest in jewelry and became disillusioned with life in the crowded New York suburbs. I moved to North Carolina and went back to school for commercial art and discovered photography. Not long afterwards, a lucky break got me a photo shoot at the airport. Two years later I became chief photographer for Airways International, an aviation magazine. I traveled the world taking photographs of planes and destinations. That career would span more than 10 years, then abruptly ended with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Flying and photography would never be the same for me.
Soon, I started tinkering with metals, making wind sculptures out of stainless steel and copper, even winning a "Best in Show" award at my first event held at the Greensboro Arboretum. As time passed and my art evolved, I eventually found my way to figurative pieces and the unique process that I have developed over the years. I have not looked back.
How did you choose the medium - and why?
Working with steel has a certain feeling of permanence, unlike the performing arts, which remain ephemeral, however delightful. It's been a journey, first crayons, drawing and painting, clay, jewelry and finally welded steel, which will last a lifetime if not a millennia.
What are the challenges?
Working in steel has its challenges because of the extreme heat required to work the metal, however I'm drawn to it for the same reasons. When I was a child I loved to build model airplanes. This meant a lot of precision work cutting the various parts out and gluing them together.. Then waiting for the glue to dry. I didn't want to watch glue dry, I wanted to build the plane! What's satisfying about welding is the fact that you can join two pieces together with the heat of the torch and within a few seconds they are solid and strong. You can keep working and working...What starts out as a plethora of old spark plugs, hinges and the like continuously and tirelessly find their way into a whimsical found object figurative sculpture.
What are the rewards?
The rewards are the fact that I can eat and live indoors, two comforts I've grown deeply accustomed to. There is also a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that comes with creating something out of your mind and bringing it to fruition, be it welded, painted or photographed, all parts of my past life as an artist. That said, I've rarely encouraged young artists to get into the business for the money. It's a very difficult way to make a living and few are able to do it successfully. A friend once asked me what was the difference between an artist and a pizza?
"A pizza can feed a family of four,” he said with a chuckle.
I smiled and silently vowed to prove him wrong.
How do you describe your work?
My current body of work is nearly completely life-size figurative works rendered in welded steel. I make a departure from time to time to do large public art pieces - furniture and wind sculptures and some glass but my mainstay is the welded steel human form.
What inspires you?
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work in many different mediums over the years. I spent all of high school in the ceramics studio. I became obsessed - not with clay, with girls. My mother told me I'd never get anywhere watching girls. I'd later unabashedly prove her wrong as my focus for the past twenty years has been on the human form, mostly the fairer sex.
I find the human form one of the most interesting subjects. It's also one of the most difficult to pull off because as humans, we are all very familiar with what a human face, body, hand, etc. look like. No matter the race, height, weight, sex, we all have very similar proportions that make up ourselves. Even a young child or a person with limited artistic talent can easily sense when a drawing or a painting of a person is out of proportion. Although they may not be able to put it to words, they will know if it is off. Sometimes artists like Picasso deliberately choose to distort the body.
Are there other mediums or artists who work in other mediums that inspire you?
Absolutely! In high school I was fascinated with rock and roll album cover art. Since I was mostly drawing and painting at the time, I felt a connection. Most of that genre is bold, sexy, and exciting! I wanted to be the one who painted the next album cover for a trendy band.
Pie in the sky, remember the artist and the pizza?
I decided it was time to go to school. Actually my parents just wanted me out of their basement, so I started taking classes at Parsons School of Design in New York, later transferring to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst when I discovered metalworking and jewelry.
I went to museums, I discovered surrealism, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte. I visited galleries, where I fell in love with the beautiful women depicted in the paintings of Alphonse Mucha and everything art nouveau. As I became more fascinated with the human form, I took to figure drawing, which led to my eventual switch to three dimensional figurative works.
I adopted a checkered career path to feed myself that included auto body worker, automotive painter, bathroom remodeling, automotive mechanic, tow truck owner/operator, until finally settling back into the art world, when I opened a jewelry store in Long Island, NY.
My work as a silversmith was short lived, as I found myself bored with making the same silly, simple earrings and the like that paid the bills, but offered little creativity.
The bigger creative pieces didn't sell as often as I wished, and I wanted and needed something more to challenge me.
Once I had made the switch to figurative sculpture, I tried my hand at many different mediums including bronze, iron and glass. At times I'd depart from the perfect proportional human form inspired by Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and others.
You mentioned that when you were younger you listened to music while you worked. Do you still listen to music while working? If so, what and why?
Music has always been a big part of my life, in spite of the fact that I can't play or sing a note. If I did, the cats would hate it. I'm the first of two children, my sister got all the musical (talent), I got all the visual. I'm big into the jam band scene and am a lifelong Dead Head, having seen the Grateful Dead a total of 53 times before singer and catalyst Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. I still follow the remnants of the band, as well as many other musical acts. I'm a child of the 60s, a bit of a hippie, happy with live music and like-minded people.
What is your studio like?
My Studio could best be described as orchestrated chaos that's about to burn down. I have buckets of stuff everywhere waiting for their place in my next creation. Since I never really know what that next creation is I can never have enough stuff. It is a mess, but it's my mess and I don't know how to work any differently. Invariably I've got several projects going on at the same time in addition to running various experiments with different materials, ideas or techniques. I make it a strong priority not to prioritize anything! All will fall into place when it's meant to happen.
What are you working on now?
While I'm still creating new works, I'm currently in marketing mode. Expanding my gallery presence across select locations in the US and abroad. I'm broadening my glass forming/fusing skills, and I've started writing again. I've also had a renewed interest in gourmet cooking.
Why is it creating art so vital for you?
Creating for me is not just a want, it's a need. If I'm not creating I feel bad and become depressed very quickly. It's hard you know? You can't just wake up and tell yourself you are going to be brilliant today. Some days it happens, sometimes not. Forgive yourself when you aren't feeling it and try to stay positive. Being an artist, a self-employed creator means having the discipline to get out of bed and be productive. If I'm inclined to create, I do my best to clean up my studio, sweep the floor and get it ready for when I do. After all, it's my livelihood and failure is not an option. Nothing like an empty canvas that beckons the brush.
Do you find creating art to be healing?
I'm not sure, I've really never stopped creating except for a period when I was very sick with cancer. I've never known another way to be. It's in my being, my soul if you will.
With the devastating news of cancer, creating came to a screeching halt. I endured both chemo and radiation treatments for the disease. My weight dropped from a healthy 160 to just under100 pounds. I was overdosed on the chemo medication and woke up the next day with permanent hearing loss. I was deaf as a post, confused, angry, and feeling hopeless. I had lost my purpose in life and wanted to die. I survived on protein shakes squeezed through a syringe directly into my stomach through a tube, only to wake up vomiting on myself shortly thereafter. Those were very dark days, to put it lightly.
I've never not done art. But I always did some kind of art. Except when I had cancer, because it becomes so overwhelming - that you might lose your life. It's a full time job. You're managing your health. You just hope you wake up the next day. But once it became clear that the treatment was working, it was a matter of getting my strength back.
In what ways has creativity been a source healing for yourself - and if so, can you tell us about that?
When I'm in my studio creating, I just kind of feel at peace. It makes me feel good. I guess that's healing in itself. And it just feels good, you feel better when you're productive rather than sitting around on your butt not doing anything.
It felt good to get back to feeling like my old self or at least closer to it. From being helpless to feeling like I'm back in the saddle again, and I'm doing it. You just feel so much happier.
Post cancer, I've really upped my (artistic) game. There's much less negative space, more thought. I've added more pieces to them, packing them in and in doing so, I've added more resolution. They fit together tighter. You can see little nuances like a belly button or a shoulder blade or muscle definition.
Has creating art changed for you in any way during the pandemic - and if so, how?
Demand for art at the beginning waned and as things got worse I feared the worst. Was I looking at another career change? I became depressed and quit making art for some time. It seemed like everything I used to know was again slipping away. I had lost my way.
It has taken some time, but creativity has slowly creeped back into my life. I've started sketching new ideas for some organic wind sculptures inspired by my time working with large stones for my isolation project outlined below.
What's been positive?
I self-diagnosed myself with severe depression. The signs were clear: sleeping most of the time, loss of appetite, dark thoughts. In April I pulled myself up and spent the next three months building a large koi pond with a patio and a pergola. I call this place “Terrapin Station,” a peaceful place whose moniker is taken from a song I’d often listen to while idly digging and lifting stones. It's a place to relax, unwind and maybe entertain (someday?).
The hard work and sunshine filled the vacuum left from my absence from the gym, kayaking and rock climbing. I was creating a sanctuary where fish swim peacefully and time slips by while I sip on a glass of wine, taking in the sweet smell of shrimp on the grill and other culinary delights I had recently taken a new interest in. Cooking is no different than painting or sculpting. It's just a different palate. I'm having fun with it, while feeding myself well.
What's been negative?
Isolation is hard. There is a reason solitary confinement is used to persuade prisoners to behave. Frankly, it's been brutal. Depression, anger, frustration with the conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers. My demeanor sometimes might best be described as like a honey badger with an impacted wisdom tooth. My patience is dwindling and like so many others, I have clear signs of "isolation anxiety.” I'm searching for a cure, a way out. Change has got to come.
And finally, the theme is Sound|Silence - how do you interpret that in relation to the art you're creating now or the artistic process?
Sculptural art rarely makes an audible sound, although it can speak volumes without uttering a single word.
Art is created in order to provoke a response, so when I'm creating a piece I may have a certain emotion in mind that I'm wanting to get from the viewer.
It should be meaningful and stir emotion in the hearts and minds of the people viewing it.