Man of Steel
Gregory Elliott creates larger-than-life works of art in his downtown studio
By his own admission, Greg Elliott still plays with toys. But the toy battleship the 55-year-old artist and chairman of the Department of Art and Art History is building will weigh half a ton of steel and wood and measure 8 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep when it's finished. The work, titled "Bigger is Better," will be included in his one-man show scheduled for March 2011 at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center.
"This is one of two major pieces centered around the idea that our consumption has gotten out of hand, and our greed and our idea of what we deserve isn't measured against what is possibly so," Elliott said, standing amid a ton of welder's and sculptor's tools of every shape and size inside his 3,000-square-foot home/studio in the King William District. "What specifically led me to this idea of a big toy ship is I found a small toy ship I built when I was 8."
Indeed, the Baltimore native, whose father was a nuclear engineer for General Electric, began buying tools at age 12 and started building "everything from small toys to swing sets to go-karts."
Over the years, Elliott graduated to assembling more intricate projects, such as his impressive steel battleship with the working turrets, smokestacks and a mast. His only concern is that it looked too much like a real ship.
But after he painted the raw steel, the ship looked like a toy—albeit a gigantic one—and helps illustrate his point that society likes to boast of its wealth through the purchase of some very expensive "toys."
"What does a guy do when he makes a lot of money? He goes to buy a car and shows it off," Elliott said. "Or if you think about children, the one with the biggest bike rules."
On the days the department chairman isn't teaching a class on sculpture— or tending to administrative matters—he can be found in his studio that resembles a busy carpenter's shop. Small but trendy living quarters are upstairs, and it's all housed inside a tan warehouse on South Presa Street.
"Living here, I work every day," the artist muses. "Because I have to walk through here to get where I eat and sleep, it's almost beyond my ability not to pick something up and tinker a little bit."
Elliott is a master at multitasking, at least when it comes to his artwork. In addition to the battleship, he is working on a series of wall pieces, or frames, with leather carvings that will feature portraits of the artist dressed as an angel and as a devil with horns. "When I was 10 or 11 years old, I got a Tandy Leathercraft kit," he said. "I still have all those tools. I build and work in leather all the time."
True to his word, in the back of a separate, air-conditioned room (his studio can reach stifling temperatures during the summer) is a finely crafted saddle. Elliott even built the wooden stand that holds the saddle; the seat consists of seven layers of leather that have been sanded as smooth as ivory.
"I like to make steel look fluid, and it doesn't want to be fluid so you have to apply a lot of heat and a lot of force." - Greg Elliot
"I've never built a saddle before. If you work in leather, it's one of the most complicated things to do," he said. "It's important to me that you actually put it on a horse and use it. The right side will be the history of Texas from the Anglo point of view, and the left side will be the history of Texas from the Hispanic point of view."
The inspiration for the inclusion of the dual history perspectives is a result of Elliott's recollection of studying Texas history in high school and learning about the Battle of the Alamo and how Texas won its independence from Mexico, he said. However, several years ago, he was teaching a class at Louisiana State University and took his students to Mexico City. They visited the National Palace to admire, among other works, Diego Rivera's mural, "History of Mexico: From Conquest to the Future."
"This guy from [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México] began interpreting the mural for us, and he started describing the exact same battle and same people," Elliott said. "Suddenly the story wasn't about us and the great independence from Mexico, but how those Yankees stole half their country."
Art professor Ken Little, Elliott's colleague and good friend, said the artist has an extraordinary command of a number of complicated media.
"He approaches his work with the energy and commitment of a master sculptor who has hit his stride," Little said. "He possesses a conceptual depth balanced with a strong dose of humor that makes his work significant and accessible. All this is available by example to the students in the classroom."
While in the classroom, Elliott constantly encourages his students to step outside their comfort zones in order for them to grow and learn as artists.
"I make sure they understand that they really need to take chances," he said. "I tell students all the time if they know exactly what they're doing with a piece of art they're wasting their time, because they already know how to do something. I think the objects at times are secondary. It's an intellectual process and expanding your knowledge in the areas you're thinking is important."
Lynn Dusenbury, a senior sculpture major, has taken her professor's words to heart, and she credits him for playing a pivotal role in her development as an artist.
"When I present my drawing proposals and ideas to Greg, he always listens to my explanation and then asks, 'Are you sure this is going to work? You might want to consider alternative processes to make this sculpture successful,' " Dusenbury said. "He encouraged me to stop creating wall sculptures and to create freestanding sculptures. In other words, I had to learn how to weld steel to create my armatures."
For Elliott, teaching and learning is a two-way street. Thus, he benefits just as much from his students as they do from him, which, in turn, makes him a better artist.
"You are surrounded by people who are searching for something, and they discover lots of things. If you're the teacher, you discover all those things with them, so imagine the amount of ideas dumped into your head," he said. "Where there's one teacher talking to 20 students, there are 20 people teaching me."
Elliott is just as adept at creating very large pieces of art as he is organizing big budgets as part of his duties as chair of the Department of Art and Art History. When he assumed the responsibilities as department chair in 2008, he never anticipated enjoying the job as much as he does, he said, mainly because it allows him to create an environment where students can develop their potential as emerging artists.
"People ask me, 'What do you work in?' I say, 'Steel, wood and a lot of paper work,' " Elliott said with a laugh. "One thing I like about the chair job is you never quite know what you're going to face when you go in. There's always some problem, more than you like, but the days go quick and problem-solving is something I like."
Since childhood, Elliott knew he wanted to be an artist, although his parents and grandparents had different aspirations for him. When he announced that he planned to pursue art as a career, he was met with disappointed looks and disparaging remarks from family members.
To appease his parents he told them he would study commercial art at college, which most likely would assure him of earning a decent living. After graduating from high school, Elliott enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University where he received his bachelor's degree in 1978 with a triple major in printmaking, ceramics and commercial art (although he admits he abhorred the latter).
During summer breaks from college, Elliott worked in steelyards as a welder building bridges. He earned a master's degree in art with a concentration in ceramics from Stephen F. Austin in 1980 and then a master's in fine art with a concentration in sculpture from Southern Methodist University in 1988.
Although he thoroughly enjoys teaching, Elliott no doubt prefers his studio, where he works freely with his hands, welding steel and cutting sheets of metal to create elaborate, eye-popping works of art. His "playground," as he calls it, includes two bulky steel tables. One weighs 2,000 pounds, and the other 2 tons.
"I use them for bending and shaping," the artist explained. "I like to make steel look fluid, and it doesn't want to be fluid so you have to apply a lot of heat and a lot of force. I like a real physical interaction with the materials I work with."
Walking around his studio, one is struck by the sheer number of tools stored in cabinets, tucked in corners and hanging from walls and every nook and cranny. At last count, Elliott possesses about 1,000 hammers, and, at one time, he owned 32 anvils.
"Tool collecting gets to be a sickness," he said, "and I've got it bad. They're heavy and awkward, and no man needs 32 anvils. Now I only have four."
Here in his studio the man of steel is in his element, and he jokes that he is just as comfortable in a steelyard as he is shopping for groceries at H-E-B.