Thursday, November 06, 2008

QUESTIONS FOR CRAFTERS: K MacLean – beyond modern

Interview by Kim Hume

K MacLean is an artist who makes metal oddment sculpture from reclaimed industrial metal parts. His clever and whimsical work ranges from sculpture, home and loft décor to jewellery and birdfeeders.

K MacLean in his Collingwood studio.

You have been making your oddments for years. When did you start, and how were you drawn to your metal work? Did you take any courses or did you teach yourself?

I had a grandfather in Saskatoon with a wondrous garage workshop and I would visit almost every summer. He had this knack of being able to make all manner of things from stuff he came across. He made his own table saws from scrap parts, had a bed that would lower from the ceiling, secret locks that you had to know which part of the door trim to pull out in order to open the door. I would hang out there and crush things in the vice while he whistled and made the daily invention. I think that influence laid dormant until I stumbled into Active Surplus one day: an inventors’ candy shop. I made a bicycle bell for myself and was hooked. I tinkered away for a year or so making candleholders in my spare time then started showing them at craft shows. Long story short, I'm self-taught.


Springythingy fridge magnet made from a watch spring and aluminum.

Today, recycling and eco art is increasingly popular. Are you finding a new audience attracted to your work because it’s recycled or repurposed?

The recycled/green thing is very popular, indeed as we have seen with all the corporations clamouring about. I've seen that interest really increase in the last few years compared to when I started doing this 15 years ago. It's nice not to have to explain the concept of reclaiming materials so often. It's great to divert some things from landfill (visit any dump to be shocked at what we throw away!), but I have never had any ideas that I'll save the planet by making these things. It's going take a fundamental shift in how all of us humans live and treat the earth to do that.

Mismatched earrings, or ‘earthrings’ by K MacLean are always a sellout item at One Of A Kind and the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition.

Do you have to worry about mercury, chemicals or other environmental issues working with old industrial parts? Are there any precautions that you take?

I generally use parts that have not seen active service. Basically, a company goes bankrupt or technology gets outdated and they sell their raw materials at auction. Jobbers buy them and sell them in outlets such as at Active Surplus, and I buy from them. I do buy some new metals as well, as it's difficult to create with 100% recycled. I am concerned about working with aluminum and the dust created. I wear a mask and have a crude vacuum system. When I was a kid, we used to play in an abandoned Domtar creosote factory, rafting on oily ponds. I figure that anything I do now can't be as bad as that.

What’s the most curious industrial part you’ve worked with?

It's not the parts that I find most intriguing, but the places I get them from: the hole in the wall dusty warehouses, the odds and ends and junk shops that I love to wander into for inspiration.

Do you have any trouble finding enough industrial parts to keep you going? Have you ever had to stop making a certain piece because the supply of a particular part dried up?

I have noticed that the number of the warehouses where I find my raw materials have dwindled or been replaced by lofts or townhouses in the past few years. Even Active Surplus moved upstairs! Plus, a lot more plastics are for sale as surplus. Thankfully, Solway's continues to please (Solway Metal Sales on Ernest Avenue in Toronto is a world unto its own. I have been going there for years, rummaging through the piles). Sometimes I find parts in the street or get ‘donations’ on my doorstep. My dream trip will be to the Boeing surplus in Seattle. But getting aeronautics parts through customs these days might be a challenge! After doing this for 15 years, I could open my own oddment warehouse, so my part supply is well stocked.

I first met you and your work in your Toronto studio on Markham Street. Now you’re based in Collingwood, and in between you had a workshop near Creemore. Is it important to stay connected to the Toronto scene, and do you find that harder now?

My wife and I moved out of Toronto when our first child was born: cheap real estate and want of green space lured us to Dunedin, a population of about 20 with no store. It’s one of those places you drive through thinking, “what do people do here?” There is, however, a vibrant arts community with some great studio tours all through the area. I do find I miss the diversity of the city plus there just is not as much good junk thrown out in the country! Toronto is like a snake shedding its skin; it changes every time I go down. I have found that not being in the city has changed my influences. The Toronto Craft Alert is an amazing resource though!

And what are the advantages in keeping your crafty business going in a smaller community?

You have to ‘make your own scene’ living in a small community and I've gotten involved with a number of co-operative arts centres. I’ve organized a series of music nights at the Mad & Noisy Gallery in Creemore. Living in a small town has definitely broadened my sense of community.

Are you finding more fans and customers by having a web presence and an Etsy Store?

Etsy has been an amazing venue with most of my sales going outside of Canada. I try to list work on Etsy every week. It’s really great for networking as well – it’s better than an open studio location. My studio has no show space, but my work is for sale at the Fishbowl Artist Studio on Hurontario Street in Collingwood.

What’s upcoming?

I will be at the One Of A Kind show in December and hope to find some exhibition space for a new show called Reno Poetic. I've also applied to a few American Crafts Council shows for 2009. I have been organizing an artist garden series of installations in two large planters on the main street in Collingwood. They change every three months with the season.

One of K MacLean’s pieces for his upcoming Reno Poetic show.

Could you dissect a piece for me?

Oh that's no fun to tell all. If anybody can guess what makes up this birdfeeder, I'll send them a prize!


Birdfeeder by metal oddment artist K MacLean.

K MacLean accepts commissions and in addition to his Etsy Store, has a studio website and is on the Ontario Crafts Council website.


Kim Hume is crafty in her spare time. She's a maker of lamps and handmade cards and enthuses about crochet and felting. She’s teaching Intro to Crochet at The Knit Café in December.


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