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Steve Lohman’s Art of Playful Deception

Whether with metal or wood, this artist brings whimsy to yards and gardens, public spaces and private homes.

A gymnast poses mid-split – head and hands straight down, legs up and splayed improbably in the air above – while the balance beam below seems to be floating. A man plays a piano in a suggestively intimate manner; saying where one ends and the other begins is impossible in this passionate melding of instrument and musician. A figure vaults high over a lichen-covered rock in the middle of a field, arms thrust backward in exaggerated exertion, the energy of that moment captured in perpetuity.

West Tisbury resident Steve Lohman’s metal sculptures are fixtures in both private gardens and public settings across Martha’s Vineyard. Many here are familiar with Steve’s take on a triathlon – a metallic meshing of a biker, a swimmer, and a runner – mounted in the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, and the large female figures at Balance restaurant in Oak Bluffs, and the eighteen-foot sculpture of a fisherman that Steve donated to the regional high school’s library.

“My pieces can be small table-top pieces or larger-than-life figures. But I find myself making more and more large outdoor sculptures,” Steve says. “I like the way my work interacts with a garden setting and changes with the light and the shadows outdoors, from morning to night and from season to season. Calculating how a sculpture will fit into someone’s yard is part of the creative process.”

Steve’s sculptures are also on display around the country: from a 120-foot rendering of a brain cell that he made for Stanford University’s neuroscience department to a girl twirling over a balance beam at Boston Children’s Hospital. His work has been exhibited at galleries including L’Attitude Gallery Sculpture Garden on Newbury Street in Boston, Gallery 8 in La Jolla, California, High Water Gallery in New Orleans, and the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown.

Steve moved to the Vineyard twenty years ago, but he began visiting the Island as a child. “My aunt, Rose Treat [another artist], moved here in the fifties,” he explains. Steve’s first show on the Island was at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury in 1984, and he has been exhibiting his work at the Chilmark Flea (the market moved to the West Tisbury School last summer) for the past fifteen years.

“Many of my clients also come visit me at my [home] studio in West Tisbury,” Steve says. “And some just check my website [www.lineartgallery.com] to see what’s new.”

Though made of metal and fixed in space, Steve’s sculptures possess a sense of whimsical showmanship, each piece like a clownish act of performance art: animated antics frozen in time. Steve makes each of his sculptures from a single line of either thin wire or thicker steel, and this continuous line heightens both the sense of motion and the humor of his work. “Using a single line,” he says, “makes for playful art, whether you’re drawing or sculpting.”

The playfulness of Steve’s work comes from minimalism as well: Brevity, it has been said, is the soul of wit. In keeping with this Shakespearian maxim, Steve has cultivated a disarming simplicity in his work, a sparseness that makes the viewer want to clap their hands and call for an encore like a child watching cartoons – a simplicity that is deceptive because it is more apparent than real, a style that succeeds because it is not the result of artistic immaturity but of mastery developed over decades.

“My goal is to capture the pure essence of what I’m portraying,” Steve says, “to say the most with the least amount of line. I’m still working on that though – it’s only been thirty years.”    
But there is more than thought-provoking clownishness to Steve’s work: There is also a feel of the conjurer’s art, a sense that logic, probability, gravity, and other supposedly immutable laws of physics are being defied, questioned, and maybe even mocked:

A diver plunges forward, going nowhere, body posed forever where it ought not be, trapped in that moment between leaving and arriving, defying the law of attraction that should pull the figure down toward the water, which we can only assume lies below. Tricked by the sense of motion inherent in the tension of the steel, the viewer waits in vain for the diver to complete the arc of descent.

A coffee drinker leans onto a table that exists only as a possibility – while it seems as if there should be a glass top beneath the elbows, in reality there is nothing, no real form of support.

And then there are the playful takes on interconnections, which can be enhanced by the seemingly simple names Steve gives his pieces: In a wire sculpture ironically called Walking the Dog, we can see clearly that the dog has taken charge; and in the steel sculpture The Fisherman, a man struggles to catch a fish, and yet the fish seems to come almost willingly toward him; while in Piano, also made of steel, the passionate pianist plays the instrument, which appears to be an integral part of his body.

Steve could easily present each piece with a “ta-da” and a flourish of the hand as if he had just pulled a rabbit from a hat or reconstructed a woman recently sawn in half.

But he does no such thing: “The use of illusion is central to my work,” Steve explains instead. “Because I use a single line of metal, the pieces are often balanced on a small point, looking like they shouldn’t be able to stand up, as if they’re defying gravity. I like creating the feeling that objects are hanging in the air, held by nothing, so people can look at them and say, ‘Hey, what’s that doing there?’”

Steve’s artistic preoccupation with illusion, his desire to portray the improbable or even the impossible, stems from an earlier occupation, when he worked as a stage magician.     

“I started doing magic tricks when I was thirteen,” Steve says, “and then I put together a stage act and worked full time as a magician during my twenties after I got out of college.”

Steve likes performing with everyday objects – transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. “One of my favorite tricks,” he says, “is ripping up and restoring a copy of the Vineyard Gazette. It’s such a nice big paper. Very impressive when it all comes back together.”     

Steve developed his artistic bent at Hampshire College in Amherst, where he made wooden furniture, studied drawing, and did some wire work. “I studied academic things too,” he says, “like math and philosophy.” He graduated in 1980 with a degree in sculpture and design.

Steve still works with wood as well as metal, but his wooden creations tend to be functional as well as artistic – his studio is furnished with unusually shaped and sized chairs adorned with carved faces, frogs, lizards, and dragonflies; a stand-up clock with fish swimming in and around the numbers; and a fireplace mantle resembling a mountain range in relief flanked by palm trees. An ornamental screen divides a portion of the room and a hand-carved, decorative croquet set sits in a corner by the back door, waiting for a game. In these pieces Steve uses woods of varying light and dark shades to sharpen the sense of contrast and to highlight the artistic details.

“I love to play croquet,” Steve says. “Sometimes I just show up at backyard parties with my favorite set.” Steve’s croquet set is an appropriate blend of whimsy and function: an ornate wooden caddy – with carved palm leaves on top and the figure of a nude woman on one side – that contains brightly colored balls, smooth-handled mallets, and wire wickets twisted to resemble familiar shapes – a bird, a house, bunny ears.

Steve’s decision to use metal instead of wood for his more purely artistic creations is a design choice: The metal allows him to develop forms, shapes, and angles quickly and flexibly in ways that are impossible with wood. Steve bends thin gauge wire by hand, but for thicker metal he uses pipe clamps. Metal is also a more durable material for weathering outdoors.

“The trick with metal,” he says, “is to produce the feeling of life by manipulating the lines and angles to create an illusory sense of motion.”

The result is a sculpture that resembles a sketch that has stepped off a page to grace a yard, a wall, or a room – art that reflects the whims of Steve’s imagination rather than the  limitations of the material.

 “[Pablo] Picasso, [Paul] Klee and [Henri] Matisse are the artists who have inspired me the most,” Steve says, pointing to a photograph on his worktable of Picasso drawing lines in the air with a flashlight. The photo captures the ephemeral, glowing drawings, but in reality they are gone; they have disappeared. Steve says, “I wanted to make those lines in the air in a way that was permanent.”

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