Delighting in whimsy

N.C. artist eschews both sterility and ‘deep meaning’ in sculptures
May 31, 2004

EARLY ONE EVENING late last year, Joel Haas entered his garage studio to make a coat rack from old auto parts.

While he worked, his mind wandered to other artists about whom he had read. One is a millionaire blessed with immense technical skills, while the other, less wealthy, has the same technical abilities but also is able to portray the full range of human emotions -- from outrage to puckish humor to belly laughs to gentle sentimentality.

 

“As all of this was going on in my head, it was as if God was talking to me … asking me what it was that I wanted. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘it would be nice to have a $2 million commission … but not at the expense of making sterile art.’”

Haas said that when he looked again at the piece on his workbench, it had transmogrified itself into a crucifix.

“Horizontal, it would make a good coat rack,” he said. “I could even probably sell it quickly. Vertical, it is a powerful Christian symbol and not likely to sell very soon or at all. As a coat rack it is elegant; as a vertical abstract, it has power.”

Hass is well known in Raleigh, N.C., and beyond for his whimsical birds and animals, made of recycled steel and liberally sloshed with sign-painter’s bright enamels.

At his home parish, Church of the Nativity, he is well known for his angel sculptures from which he created Christmas cards last year. Fellow parishioners sold the cards, raising enough money to send several Ugandan teen girls to school for one year.

Heaven or hell?
One of his newer creations is a steel sculpture, eight feet tall, which he titled Heaven or Hell – A Theological Weathervane.

Unlike a traditional weathervane with four directional points, Haas’ weathervane has two. A stationary angel, surrounded in space by stars and the planets, blows his trumpet above a spinning arrow that points in two directions.

“It is the way to ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ that is constantly changing – depending on which way the wind blows and from what direction you view the spinning arrow,” said Haas. “One side is labeled ‘heaven and hell’ and the other ‘hell and heaven.’

As he does with most of his sculpture, Haas used scrap metal in this work. “The arc of space is from an old canvas awning; the angel’s wings are based on freon can handles,with old spoons and knives for wings and some scrap steel washers for the ‘eyes of God,’ such as old Romanesque period painters used to paint on angel wings.

“The halo is an electric motor part; the head is a piece of pipe, with wing nuts, washers and hex nuts for the features. He [the angel] blows a trumpet made from an oil can spout and one leg of a holder from a political campaign sign.”

Haas calls himself self-taught; he has a high school diploma and a welding certificate from a local trade school.

“Being a freelance artist, I have to be able to work in a variety of styles and media,” he said. “My background is in realistic modeling, since I started creating pieces for private collectors and giftware companies.”

Some of his creations are designed as table sculpture and some for gardens. The flowers, butterflies, dragonflies and love bugs delight collectors searching for whimsy, color and humor.

The owls, bluebirds, penguins, pelicans, rhinos, lions and dogs, Haas said, “bound, gallumph, snort and crawl their way into the hearts of collectors.

“Some people have asked me if there is any serious or deep meaning to my work. I say, ‘I hope not.’ There are already enough serious and deep meanings in the world to keep thousands of art critics busy.

“I just make stuff that transports me to a happier place where I can hum and whistle.”

Wise men and giraffes
Besides the “angel project” and Christmas card sale that will continue to support Ugandan schoolgirls, Haas has another project underway for his parish.

“I’ve asked teachers in the 4- to 9-year-old Sunday school classes to have their kids illustrate parts of the Christmas story. The church men’s group and I would then transfer them to large pieces of steel sheet, cut out the images and paint them.

“That way we come up with our own unique crèche scene -- very appropriate for Church of the Nativity. As new kids join the church, there will always be a need for more sheep, angels and shepherds.”

Haas promises that he will keep a “very liberal” grip on the project. “For instance, if some kids include a purple giraffe with the Wise Men, that’s fine with me.”

For more on Haas’ creations, visit www.joelhaasstudio.com

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