Brooklyn Sculptor Builds Community, Using Shop Artists as his Parts

By Kieran K. Meadows

Industrial shop machines clutter the inside of a gutted former church on Pioneer Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The roof rises about 60 feet and a steep wooden staircase leads to a loft-like second floor. Orange extension cords snake along catwalk-like structures and thick ropes hang from wooden rafters. Inside a room on the second floor, methodical instructions cover worktable surfaces reminiscent of a plant assembly line.

A small tour of three artists wound its way around the studio space, intrigued by the organized chaos—a cross between a shop artists’ funhouse and endless storage space.

“There are about 1,000 parts in Raining Tree,” boasted Chico MacMurtrie, the artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works, as he pointed to a large silvery tree-like structure slumped in storage. At one point the tree was a robotic installation that responded to the presence of viewers by moving and dripping water rhythmically from its branches.

“I need hands all the time,” MacMurtrie said to the group—a sculptor, a painter, and a seamstress. “I can’t always pay, but I can feed you.”

MacMurtrie, 47, calls himself a robotic sculptor. He founded Amorphic Robot Works in 1991 as a collaboration of artists, engineers and programmers to help him realize his mechanical kinetic sculptures. Much of MacMurtrie’s work consists of many small parts that must fit perfectly and move together for the sculpture to function. In many ways, his work serves as a metaphor for the way he runs his studio: like another one of his machines, but with artists and co-workers as the integral parts.

“The people here are like the components,” MacMurtrie said.

MacMurtrie has tried to build a solid community of artists at his studio in the rented gutted church since 2002. He and a friend found the space after working out of a much smaller studio, also in Red Hook, for two years. The church’s owner really liked his artwork and needed someone to both fix up the space and keep an eye on it.

It is well known that artists who live in cities are always looking for affordable workspace. They have often been the pioneers into neighborhoods prior to the onset of gentrification. Red Hook became a prime destination for artists in the last 10 years for two reasons: first, vast space is available, a remnant of the neighborhood’s industrial past; and second, artists here form a tight-knit supportive community. This is perhaps true now more than ever in the current tough economic climate. Rents in the neighborhood have increased recently because of gentrification and the economic downturn has made the artistic life more difficult.

“A lot of folks are feeling the pinch at the moment,” MacMurtrie said. “We give each other work. I trade a lot with a core group of people who work with me over the years.”

A.J. Johnson, a set and prop designer, stood in the studio’s center room surrounded by plywood, two-by-fours and power tools. Johnson and his partner, Geoffrey Quelle, were recently laid off after working for Blue Man Group for more than 10 years.

“Once you don’t have a space anymore, it’s hard,” said Johnson.

Even though MacMurtrie admits that artists can sometimes be flaky tenants, he rents studio space to about three at a time to help defray his own rent for the 4,000 square foot church. Johnson and Quelle now rent space from MacMurtrie and plan to rent at least until March.

“It’s been very affordable,” said Quelle. “There’s a lot of resources here. It’s been great.”

MacMurtrie walked along an uneven mix of hardwood, metal sheeting and concrete that forms the floor. He briefly checked on his assistant, Bastian, who was cutting rings out of a metallic cylinder with a cold saw for a work in progress called Sixteen Birds. MacMurtrie took one of the rings and traced it onto plywood that he then cut into a circular cookie. The two men stood eight feet apart as they sanded their respective materials. The machines hummed.
Sixteen Birds is a multi-sculpture installation of white fabric structures that hang from the ceiling. Two pieces of tensile fabric connected by joints each slowly inflate into narrow cone-shapes, evoking a 10-foot wingspan like a simple V-line drawing of a bird. The installation has shown in Australia, China and Europe. MacMurtrie recently won a grant to produce a second set of birds for the show at the Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh. While he prepared for the show, he worked on new conceptual ideas. And he is always on the lookout for possible tenants.

One recent November day in front of a neighborhood coffee shop, a friend introduced him to a young artist named Martin who was searching for studio space. As MacMurtrie sized the kid up, he debated whether or not to include him as another piece in his machine. He told him to come by to take a look later on.

“It’s all typical,” he said afterward. “I’m always trying to find a good match. I really like to help artists cause I got all these tools.”

But not all artists who have met MacMurtrie would agree with that sentiment.

“I got the sense he is a survival artist who is willing to take from anyone and give as little as possible in return just to get his art out,” said Dominik Love Gabrielsen, one artist who has toured the studio.

Perhaps some of the criticism stems from jealousy of the fact that MacMurtrie has so much space. But to save on costs, the huge building is not heated, except for a small kitchen area. A sign instructs people to shut the door behind them to keep heat in.

Inside the kitchen, MacMurtrie finally took off his faded brown Carhartt jacket and hung it on a chair. He removed the protective glasses propped on his head and then ran his hand through his graying wavy hair. He quickly pulled out a few pots, pasta and vegetables. Not only are big communal lunches another way MacMurtrie saves money, but also it’s how he feeds the parts of his machine.

“If you cook, you make ‘em feel loved, cause cooking is love, you know?” he said as he cut zucchinis. “If you give them a warm meal, they’ll want to keep working here. We’ll sit down at the table and have a little camaraderie.”

When the scent of garlic tomato sauce permeated the shop, Bastian, and two tenants, Desiree Hammen, a seamstress, and Johnson, the set and prop designer, crammed in for the mid-day feast. All sat down and happily ate together.

When MacMurtrie’s parts are happy, he’s happy—and perhaps a bit more humble.

“I’m just trying to make the next piece, as I’ve always been.”

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