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Inspired by Bob Cassilly, sculptor Noah Kirby pays it forward

Noah Kirby
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Metal sculptor Noah Kirby wants to make sure people know he worked “for” the late Bob Cassilly, not “with” him, as some claim. But just being in proximity to the creator of St. Louis’ City Museum was life-changing, giving Kirby a first-row seat to Cassilly’s genius, and generosity with space and materials.

Today, Kirby’s Six Mile SculptureWorks in Granite City is also a haven for young artists from all over the country. Some arrive as artists in residence, living on the America’s Central Port complex where Kirby’s studio is located. Others flock to his annual Iron Pour Conference, coming up next month.

Kirby, a professor of sculpture at Washington University, moved to St. Louis in 1998 for WUSTL’s master’s program. He’d just earned his bachelor’s from the University of Tennessee, and married one of his UT professors, artist Alison Ouellette-Kirby, now art program coordinator at St. Charles Community College. A visit to the fabled City Museum was first on his to-do list. He wasn’t disappointed.

“I thought, ‘This is fantastic, an unprecedented kind of place,’” Kirby said.

Then he met the man behind the museum, who died two years ago on Sept. 26.

“He was like this mythical creature, he might as well have been a unicorn,” Kirby said. “I caught up with him and said, ‘Hey, we want to pour iron here at the City Museum; it’d be cool,’ and he’s like, ‘OK.’”

Every weekend for a summer, Kirby poured iron for art-making in a furnace on the museum parking lot, demonstrating the process to visitors. One day, Cassilly came by.

“He’s like, ‘Why don’t you come work on my crew for me?” Kirby said. Now, 10 years later, Kirby’s getting a growing amount of recognition for his own work, including a recent Artists Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission.

“Bob gave Noah this overwhelming sense that anything can be done, if you have the will and the drive to make it happen,” Alison Ouellette-Kirby said.

‘Looks cool’

In a rural area just outside of Knoxville, Kirby, 38, grew up surrounded by people who worked with their hands. It wasn’t a family of artists, but of building contractors.

“I had free rein of all the scrap 2x4s," Kirby said. "They couldn’t keep duct tape in the house; I’d tape sticks together to make guns. I’d make forts and fortresses and obstacle courses in the woods.”

Weekends consisted of working with his dad on side jobs for cash -- decks, home additions and garages. “About the only tool my dad wasn’t comfortable with me using when I was 7 or 8 was a circular saw.”

To escape the paycheck-to-paycheck existence of his childhood, Kirby eyed a military career. But a high school art class opened a new world of craftsmanship and the prospect of art as a career. As the first in his family to go to college, he became an oddity in his home town.

“To this day when I go home, people are like, ‘What are you doing in the Marine Corps?’ or ‘What are you doing in the Navy?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m an art professor,” Kirby grinned.

You can take the boy out of the country, they say, and you know the rest. This country boy’s Tennessee twang is still strong as he talks about creating art as “making stuff.” But Kirby’s as eloquent as he is plain-spoken, evidenced by his making connections between the military and making art.

“I believe in liberty and freedom and independence as American ideals,” Kirby said. “But I’m best suited to support that through creative acts of artwork as opposed to being an extension of a political doctrine.”

The intersection of art and war is examined in Kirby’s “Killbox” sculpture, exhibited at Good Citizen Gallery in 2010. A kill box is a military grid system that maps out an area of planned occupation. Depending on the perspective, Kirby’s steel-and-vinyl five-man squad seems to target the viewer.

“I was thinking about a SWAT team as a sort of hydra, this multi-headed thing that’s one unit with the ability to control and dominate a space,” Kirby said. “Also, it looks cool, I think.”

‘Paint it red’

“Killbox” now lives in Kirby’s 5,000-square-foot industrial space beneath Route 3 in Granite City. Through an arrangement with America's Central Port, and as part of the local Alfresco Productions arts organization, Kirby’s use of the 20-foot tall former locomotive repair building includes an ongoing contribution of sculpture to the city -- his own, and that of his students and resident artists.

Noah Kirby with Wayfinder
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Noah Kirby with Wayfinder

Kirby’s fabricated steel “Wayfinder” pays tribute to Mississippi River navigation along America’s Central Port, comprising 75 square miles of southwestern Madison County. Its three towering components that seem to point the way are references to Granite City, Madison and Venice, all in the port area.

Though it shares part of its name and a color with Laumeier’s “The Way,” the Alexander Lieberman piece was not the inspiration for “Wayfinder.” But the correlation does remind Kirby of a sculpture joke.

“If you don’t know what else to do, paint it red or make a lot of them or make it really big,” he laughed.

Among the student work dotting Granite City is a collaborative piece from Kirby’s metal fabrication class. The sculpture, near the downtown park, consists of two grids: one is the footprint of the city’s NESCO enameling and stamping company, the other, an outline of the city’s streets. Together, they literally show the intersection of industry and life in Granite City.

Another piece, at the city’s performing arts center, looks like a giant magnet, referencing Granite City’s steelmaking history and its newer promotional efforts as a magnet for both art and industry.

“The student work has to be about, or relative to, the community,” Kirby said.

Money and marital spats

Even with two art-professor incomes, Kirby and his wife’s artistic ventures keep their budget close to the bone. They put everything they had into a collaborative 2011 exhibition called “Tone Deaf” that debuted at the University of Mississippi.

“We went into debt and maxed out all our credit cards,” Kirby said.

From Tone Deaf
Credit Provided | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
From Tone Deaf

In fact, arguments over money and other issues that spark the struggles of most couples were the inspiration for “Tone Deaf,” whose pieces include something akin to a giant silver megaphone and other works that speak to the signal and the noise of communication.

“My wife and I are both sort of adamant, opinionated people,” Kirby said.

“We’ll realize about halfway into it we're arguing the same side using different language,” Ouellette-Kirby said.

Taking “Tone Deaf” to other cities including New Orleans, Jacksonville, Ill., and Ontario, Canada, helped recoup their costs. Their next collaborative exhibit will “keep us broke for the next three to four years,” Kirby said. But it won’t cost the couple as much as it might have, because of a $3,000 Artists Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission’s Artists Count program.

These grants, whose second application round is now open through Oct. 15, help artists of every kind with such expenses as studio space, travel and materials.

In Kirby and Ouellette-Kirby’s case, it bought a machine that bends sheet metal. The device will help create an exhibit bound for the National Ornamental Metal Museum in March. Kirby’s grant request was a winner because it illustrated his dedication, and hit all the marks of the application criteria, according to Roseann Weiss, RAC’s director of community an public art.

Monologue from Tone Deaf
Credit Provided | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Monologue from Tone Deaf

“It was well-written, well put-together. He showed us very clearly how he would spend money and how it would benefit him as an artist,” Weiss said.

‘Know your place’

The Memphis exhibit -- consisting of numerous animals including a rotating shark, reflective panels, street signs and a curious dog -- will be called “Un Chien Regarde Bien un Evêque,” French for “A dog looks well at a bishop.”

“My wife’s dad used to say that,” Kirby said. “But in the language of my Tennessee family, it’s like, “Don’t rise above your raising” or “Know your place.”

Kirby’s commitment to helping young artists do the opposite -- to go as far as they can -- will be on display at the Iron Pour, coming up Oct. 9-12. For a $65 fee, newbies can work alongside experienced sculptors to build frames and pour iron at Kirby’s studio. All visitors can enjoy a related flaming sculpture garden in downtown Granite City and an artists’ talk at the city’s Alfresco Art Center.

Iron-pouring events have a long tradition in the metal-sculpture world, way before Kirby launched his in 2010. The gatherings provide valuable hands-on training and side-by-side camaraderie. It’s the perfect way to pass on the skills and knowledge of an historic process, and Granite City is the ideal place to do that.

“I’m doing something that’s been done for thousands of years,” Kirby said. “I’m part of a creative legacy and that creativity has a direct link to our industrial processes.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.