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Ancient art brings new life to old things at St. Charles festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2009 - This weekend on Main Street in St. Charles, Joseph Farmer will be camped out in a booth with egrets and turkeys, dragonflies and shutterbugs, musicians, pike and tortoises.

But that's not the coolest part.

"The magic of my art is what I made it from," the sculptor says.

Look closely, and you'll see what he means -- the egret's nose is pliers, the turkey's tail is a tractor seat, the tortoise's shell is an old Army helmet.

Farmer, a St. Charles resident, will display and sell his art this weekend along with about 100 other juried artists at Mosaics, Missouri Festival for the Arts.

With tools from his own past, Farmer gives old objects new forms, and in the process, it's given him a whole new purpose, too.

"Plus," he says, "I like the challenge of taking a wrench and making a cool lookin' grasshopper."

From Macrame To Jazz Mantis

More than 35 years ago, Farmer learned a trade that led to his art.

"One of my early jobs was a hydraulic technician with a local hydraulic distributor," says Farmer, who is 57.

He learned to weld in that job, and a few years later took a class in black smithing at St. Louis Community College. There, he learned the foundation of metal working, and soon put his skills to work for his wife.

Bridget Farmer worked in fiber arts, and often she'd display her art at shows. Farmer helped her, building shelves from old pulleys and other rusty things. His wife then hung her macrame plant hangers from what Farmer calls a mix of vintage antique junk.

By the early '80s, he expanded from hooks to plant stands for his wife's shows, and often he'd show his creations alongside hers.

Then, one day he saw a sickle blade.

"And I saw the body of a bird in there," he says.

Farmer began creating new shapes out of old forms, and even won first place in his first art show.

But his art career didn't have a long start.

Soon after he began making his own art, Farmer and his wife had two kids in diapers, so he got a job as a prototype technician.

"For about 20 years," he says. "I put the art work on the back burner."

New And Used

In 2002, Farmer and his wife moved to St. Charles, and with a perfect garage just sitting there, he decided to set up another workshop and start making his sculptures more often.

"I always knew that I was going to finish what I started," he says.

Then, in 2006, the company Farmer worked for was sold and reorganized. To Farmer, it seemed like the perfect time to get back into his art.

Now, he and his wife search through flea markets, finding pipe wrenches to make the bodies for dragonflies, old cameras to become the faces of his shutterbugs and instruments such as saxophones to enliven his creations, like the Jazz Mantis. He gets scraps of rebar from a laborer friend, and buys scrap metal from fabrication shops.

Still, even though he uses the anvil, the welding tools and the torch, he's not a blacksmith or a welder. Farmer's a sculptor, he says, who uses the techniques of a few trades.

"I draw from skills that I've learned from 30 years in the industrial sector," he says

This will be Farmer's fourth year at Mosaics, which begins Friday, Sept. 18, and runs through the weekend. As in years past, artists will be there from around the country, plus performing arts and activities for kids and families.

And Farmer will be there, alongside the other artists, with all his creations.

"His concepts are just interesting as all get out," says Joyce Rosen, executive director of the Foundry Arts Centre and Mosaics.

Often, though, Farmer says he's not taken too seriously in the art world because people see what he does as a gimmick.

That's OK.

He gets it.

What he creates are things with a past that, like him, now have a new purpose.