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Sitting on his Laurels at
Rats Restaurant
Reviews
Bucks County Herald
Review by Jan Lipes (November 10th, 2005)

Artist’s Corner: Was it a rat I saW?


When I saw the bronze beast at Phillip’s Mill this year, I remembered the outdoor herd of 12 of its siblings at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J. I drove out to chat with the sculptor, Dana Stewart, the other day. His studio and foundry is just south of Lambertville on Old River Road.
Dana is a lover of palindromes, stories, surfing, his nine cats, his two teenage daughters and sculpting. Full of fun, he says, “My work is tongue in cheek. I like double entendres. If someone smiles at one of my pieces, I think it’s successful.”
After taking ceramics in college in California, “a pal said to me, ‘Dana, you know people will buy these things.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ So I took my little red wagon out in my neighborhood and I sold everything in an hour and made a couple of hundred bucks. That lit the fire. I’d drive right to the edge of the city limits where they didn’t require you to have a license and I’d open up right on the highway and sell out.” He earned a master’s degree in sculpting in 1971.
When Dana saw welding for the first time, “I was like a moth to flame.” He was introduced to bronze casting by Herk Van Tongeren, one of the founders of the Johnson Atelier at the Ground for Sculpture. In 1973 he switched from welding aluminum and steel to casting bronze. In the late ‘70s, he became head of the ceramic shell department at the Atelier and afterwards, taught foundry at Rutgers University. Dana opened his own foundry in 1987, providing casting services for artists. “I make my money doing everybody else’s sculpture. Seventy percent of my work is foundry for others since I have two daughters and I need the guaranteed money. I’ve often pondered, if I worked this hard on my own sculpture, would I be a successful artist?”
Dana started his “Beast” series in 1976. Rooted in fantasy and fairy tale, he got the idea when he saw a picture of an African dog with nails driven into it. “I made this animal and I gave it this tail, long and round at the right angle. It was pretty phallic and I said to my fellow teachers, ‘What do you think?’ They said, ‘We like it, except that tail bothers us’. Bingo…that was my hook. And the tails have been getting longer ever since.”
He sculpted a rat called “Sitting on his Laurels,” noting that most people are turned off by rats because of their “kahonas” and their hairless, long tail. He exaggerated those features and sold one of them to Seward Johnson who installed it in the rest room of Rats Restaurant.
Other beasts he has made include “Suburbus” (“You’ve heard of Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld? This is the guardian of the suburbs.”) and “Narcissy,” who looks backwards, admiring its own tail.
Dana tries to make his work mysterious enough that people must use their imagination. The beasts seem familiar but there’s something eerie about them. “I never give it away,” says Dana. “I let people figure it out themselves.”
His biggest influences have been Surrealism’s Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. His inspiration comes from stories, the ocean, animas and human nature. “When I start a piece, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t sketch but just start playing with shapes and have fun. It’s like ‘automatic sculpting.’ The adventure is that you don’t know what’s going to come out. I work directly in wax and if I like it, I make a mold for bronze.”
Dana uses the “Lost Wax” technique, described in the Artist’s Corner of November 25th, 2004, “Thinking Like Bronze”. This process takes a model created in any material and with molds, rubber, plaster, wax ceramic shell and heat, turns it into bronze. At New Hope’s 2005 Outdoor Sculpture Show, the library was graced with “Baileygator.” Dana says, “I went down to the flea market and I found this wooden alligator. I extended the legs and padded it with foam. It’s got a big alligator mouth and lips inside the mouth. A conundrum is to kiss the lips of the Baileygator….It’s dangerous!”
Dana presently has five outdoor pieces in “Focus Sculpture,” a show at Princeton Day School. “Boomer,” a beast that’s 19 feet long and weighs 1,005 lbs, “is at the school now getting educated.”
Above one of Dana’s workbenches is a wall full of paintings of the ocean, many purchased from the flea market. While he’s working, it gives him the feel of a great surf. “I pick up my welding helmet and look out there going, “Wow!” You get the idea. This is an artist who doesn’t take things seriously. Of his choice of careers, he says, “I thought that I’d be surfing a lot more. Maybe when I retire.”

Jan Lipes is a Bucks County painter whose work may be seen at Graatz Gallery in New Hope (www.gratzgallery.com)

jlipes@voicenet.com

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