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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tribute to Walter James opening Friday

Small Space Gallery
70 Audubon St., 2nd floor, New Haven, (203) 772-2788
A Tribute to Walter James
Apr. 4—May 30, 2008
Opening reception: Fri., Apr. 11, 5—7 p.m.

Press release

The Arts Council of Greater New Haven presents A Tribute to Walter James at the Small Space Gallery at 70 Audubon Street, second floor. The exhibit takes place from April 4 to May 30 at the Arts Council's offices, with a reception on Friday, Apr. 11, 5—7 p.m. The public is invited to attend. Regular gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A Tribute to Walter James features a stunning selection of sculptures and masks created by the late artist Walter James. An active member of the community, James devoted much of his life to the arts, including designing and building a Newhallville monument on Bassett Street. The show is organized by Walter's son Darius James and friend Fethi Meghelli.


Walter James was not only a talented sculptor. He was also a true gentleman. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with James in 2001 when I was putting together a package of articles on that year's City-Wide Open Studios for the New Haven Advocate. James was then sharing studio space with other metal sculptors in a building on Front Street. This is what I wrote at the time:

A brass lock. A candleholder. A pitchfork. A rusted catalytic converter. What do these objects have in common? They all have second lives as elements in masks created by sculptor Walter James.

James himself has had a second life. While he studied clay and stone sculpting at the Art Students League in New York City in the late 1940's and early '50's, marriage and family forced him to put his art aspirations on the back burner. For almost three decades, he made his living in the aerospace industry. Fifteen years ago, after retiring on disability following a series of heart attacks, James had the time and desire to return to sculpture. He got involved with Creative Arts Workshop and studied with sculptor Ann Lehman.

"I had to learn the principles of art all over again because I was away from it for 25-30 years. Everything had changed," says James.

One difference was in the acceptance of metal as a sculptural medium. And, drawing on the example of forebears like Marcel Duchamp, James gravitated toward incorporating scrap-found objects-into his creations. He rejects the view that found objects are "not art."

"If a form is beautiful and it's a readymade article and you can use it something else, I see no harm in it," argues James.

In fact, he often lets the objects he collects suggest ideas. Much of his work in the past half-decade has been making metal masks inspired by those of so-called primitive cultures. Hanging on the wall of the riverside industrial studio he shares with fellow metal sculptors Diane Platt, Catherine Ocalewski, Val Kropiwinicki, Michael Teitsh and Allen Braman is "Oba," named after one of the main spirits from the voodoo religion, according to James. The fearsome mask with jagged, squared-off teeth has a band arching across its forehead made from the "beauty ring" of a car wheel.

"I try not to copy any particular mask but assimilate the spirit of it," he says.

What fascinates James is how motifs recur in disparate human societies separated by distance and time—the masks, music, pottery, weaving, religion. One of James' recent observations is the recurrence of the use of a bird symbolism on masks.

"Northwest Indians, New Guineans, Africans—you couldn't get any further separated and they all make masks with birds perched on top. And it's all a symbol of wisdom," says James. "The more I observe these things, the more I realize we're more alike than different."

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