How many physical objects would you choose to reveal the essence of your lifelong creative passion?
For Uptown artist James Simon, the magic number is 143.
That’s the sum total of photos, sketches, tools, sculptures and mosaic pieces included in the James Simon: A Life Of Making exhibition on view through Oct. 22 at Contemporary Craft’s BNY Mellon Satellite Gallery, located Downtown at 500 Grant St. in the lobby of Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s Steel Plaza Station.
The assemblage spans 50 years but represents a mere fraction of the ongoing output by one of Pittsburgh’s most eclectic and innovative artisans, works that range from top-quality violins and towering street sculptures to glittering glass and tile signage and whimsical clay works melding humans, animals and musical instruments.
Yet the assortment isn’t entirely random, Simon explains.
“Contemporary Craft invited me to have an exhibit, and the idea initially was to show how my work changed from violin making into sculpture and how much the violin making influenced the sculpture. And then it became a retrospective.”
After graduating from Peabody High School in 1972, Simon embarked upon nearly 30 years of travel in search of artistic knowledge and spiritual inspiration, with significant sojourns in Australia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Brazil, England, Colombia and Canada.
Returning to Pittsburgh in 1998, he renovated a former scrap metal warehouse on Uptown’s Gist Street into an all-purpose production studio and year-round arts hub featuring intimate performances by writers and musicians from around the world.
His new sculptures and mosaics began to express themes of community consciousness he observed in the rhythms of everyday Pittsburgh life and lore: “August Wilson At His Type Writer,” “Liberty Avenue Musicians,” “Uptown Rhythm,” “The Camera Man Teenie Harris,” “Woman on a Bike Reading Poetry,” “Fallen Heroes,” “Bass Man with Moon,” “The Skateboarders.”
NEXTpittsburgh recently found Simon in his studio finishing up submissions for a half dozen public art projects around the country.
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NEXTpittsburgh: How did you begin organizing what would be in the “Life of Making” exhibit? Which piece did you choose first?
James Simon: It’s called “Motorcycle Man.” He’s got peace signs on his shoulders and jacket, very much the Sixties/Seventies style. I made it in high school, and it won some national awards.
I had a great high school art teacher named Ed Kosewicz. He was one of those teachers who got a lot of students — a lot of people — excited about art. That’s where I first got interested in art and in clay and sculpture. I discovered that I really like to make stuff, especially out of clay.
NEXTpittsburgh: After high school, you left Pittsburgh and traveled fairly extensively.
Simon: For quite a few years. Just because I love to travel, and I wanted to see what was going on out in the world. I ended up in Oregon and met carpenters and stained glass window makers and cabinet makers and fruit pickers. I tried to make all kinds of stuff, basically learning what I could do and not do, what I was good at and was interested in.
And in my travels, I met a violin maker. The idea of making a violin fascinated me, so I made a violin with him.
NEXTpittsburgh: Had you played the violin before?
Simon: No, but my dad was a violinist. He played in the Pittsburgh Symphony in the 1930s. That was my first connection with violins. I grew up listening to my dad’s violin playing. I ended up in Oxford, England, where I met a violin maker, Andrew Dipper, who was a musical instrument restoration master.
He worked for all the major museums and still does, repairing everything from lutes from the 1500s to hurdy-gurdies to the best harpsichords from France. He’s a genius at restoration. But he was also extremely knowledgeable about how Italian violin makers in the Stradivari period made violins.
I fell in love with his studio, with his workshop, with the tools, with everything. I asked him if I could apprentice with him. And he said no.
Simon: He said I needed to learn the basic stuff and come back after a couple of years when I knew something.
NEXTpittsburgh: No beating around the bush there.
Simon: I wrote to all the violin makers in England and found David Vernon in Manchester, and I went and visited him. I really liked him. I liked the shop and stayed there for two years, and I learned the basics of violin making.
NEXTpittsburgh: And then back to Oxford and Andrew Dipper?
Simon: Yes, kind of like for my graduate degree. I studied with him for a couple of years. We focused a lot on geometric design, shapes of violin acoustics, the chemistry related to the varnish making and things like that.
One of the things I wanted to do in my younger days was develop my skills. I knew I liked making stuff. I had an interest in getting good with my hands, and violin making gave me an opportunity to do that, in that it’s a very sophisticated and complex instrument to make.
NEXTpittsburgh: Did you get deeply into Renaissance music and art?
Simon: I did. Andrew Dipper had a studio in Cremona, Italy, where he would go sometimes to teach and work. Cremona is where Stradivari and all the other great classic violin makers lived in the 1600s, and it’s still considered to be home to the best violin makers in the world. It’s a fantastic place.
In Cremona, I met Alvaro Escalante, a Mexican violin maker. He said let’s all meet in Mexico and open up a shop there after we leave Europe. I was very excited about that idea and eventually moved to Mexico and opened up a violin making shop with Alvaro in Tepoztlán, about 50 miles south of Mexico City.
NEXTpittsburgh: That must have opened up a lot of new influences for your art.
Simon: I fell in love with Mexico. Mexico is a great country of art. The visual arts are fantastic, both historically and all the contemporary and indigenous paintings and sculptures and writing.
But little by little I decided I needed more than violin making, that there was much more I wanted to express in my daily life and my experiences than I could with violin making.
After three years in Mexico, I moved to Eugene, Oregon, and took a sculpture class from George Kokis at the University of Oregon. I had access to an incredible ceramic studio open 24 hours a day. I made violins during the day and worked in the ceramic studio all night. I was transforming from a violin maker to a clay and sculpture artist.
NEXTpittsburgh: Blending the two art forms into something new.
Simon: I started showing the sculptures in public spaces. Not in galleries so much, but in bank lobbies and in little markets around town, small parks. I saw that regular people passing by really liked my stuff. That’s what got me interested in public art; putting my art out into the public realm where people could see it every day on their way to work or wherever.
NEXTpittsburgh: Once you returned to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, your sculpture work got more focused.
Simon: I experimented with making clay sculptures. Creating plaster molds for the sculptures and then casting them in concrete. It’s very lightweight and strong, which opened up possibilities for me to do large-scale public art. It’s complicated to do large-scale clay to go on the streets, especially on the East Coast where the weather is so bad.
NEXTpittsburgh: What’s the attraction of public art in our time? In centuries past, it was used to tell a story about the events and famous people a society thought were important. Now, we’re a society that gets our information from computers we carry in our pockets, all very isolated and private.
Simon: What inspires me in art has always been a more positive take on human existence. Much of my work is a celebration. I feel it’s a very nice thing to bring something that’s happy and celebratory to the streets.
My first big public art piece in Pittsburgh came in 2003 when I got a commission from real estate developer Eve Picker to do the “Liberty Avenue Musicians.” It was intended to be a welcome to the Downtown Cultural District. That was my first large-scale concrete sculpture piece where I applied all the knowledge I’d been gathering.
NEXTpittsburgh: And in 2007, John Fetterman — then mayor of Braddock and now U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania — invited you to do an art project with local youth?
Simon: The project was to make a gateway sculpture, which ended up being the “Welcome to Historic Braddock” sign. But Braddock had a really good AmeriCorps youth program, and we got the young people to help make a mosaic carpet for a park that had been a vacant lot. Every week we went into the basement of a church with no heat, with winter jackets on, and the kids would help me make the panels.
NEXTpittsburgh: You mobilized your first art crew!
Simon: When I work with high school kids, I realize from my own experiences what an important age that is for being exposed to an artistic world. Most of the kids I’ve worked with have never worked with clay or done anything like this. And they all get into it. It’s very exciting for them. For me, it’s always good to remember the beginnings. Especially how important my high school teacher was to my development.
NEXTpittsburgh: From this point, you were incorporating a lot of mosaics into your work?
Simon: I love doing mosaics; I love the materials. I love glass. I love ceramic tile. I love the colors. It’s basically a way for me to paint because I’m really a lousy painter. I’m much better at doing it in a more collage way.
And now I’m moving into fused glass. Pittsburgh Glass Center offered me a workshop to teach me how to convert some of my mosaic ideas into fused glass. They took me through the stages of creating a fused glass piece, and I’ve created three or four pieces.
NEXTpittsburgh: A whole new field to explore.
Simon: It is very exciting for me because it’s like mosaics-times-ten — mosaics that get melted and turned into a whole different feeling that I love. It reminds me a little bit of the Mexican mural painters and the possibilities of how everything changes when it gets melted and cooked in ovens. It’s always a little bit of a surprise how it’s going to come out.
NEXTpittsburgh: Have there been good surprises?
Simon: It’s all been a happy surprise that I can express my life experience both in mosaics and in fused glass in very much of a storytelling way. You can tell stories with mosaics and infused glass like you can tell stories with paintings. I think it’s important for my art to evolve and change. I think most artists feel that way.
NEXTpittsburgh: What would you like people to know about you — the personal James Simon — from the artwork they see in “A Life of Making?”
Simon: That you have to find your way to get your voice out there. The art I create has always been my natural voice. It’s never been tweaked to what’s fashionable at the time in history or, you know, what people are writing about or what’s popular in galleries or museums or art magazines.
It’s really just my own voice very influenced by the different cultures where I’ve lived.