Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Jeff Menzies an integrated artist

Published:Friday | October 10, 2014 | 10:00 AM
Some of the instruments of art made by Jeffrey Menzies, at the Liguanea Art Festival earlier this year. File

In his 90-minute presentation on 'The Tug of War Between Art & Craft: Life After Art School' at the Edna Manley College's School of Visual Arts last week Thursday, Sculpture Department lecturer Jeffrey Menzies portrayed himself as an integrated artist. Menzies illustrated his presentation with slides.

At first, I thought of him as merely multitalented and, after the talk, tried to break down his occupations into performing musician, designer and maker of musical instruments, sculptor and lecturer, I might have added painter and photographer.

But, looking uncomfortable with my questions, Menzies repeated something he'd said earlier - he does not differentiate between teaching and studying sculpture. "What I learn from my students is as much as I've learnt from any art school," he added.

Born and trained in Canada and now in his mid-30s, Menzies said he doesn't feel Canadian. For one thing, he is the only Canadian in his family. He recalled a fellow sculptor, a man in his 70s, admitting that he only now understands what he is doing with his art. "One's identity evolves over an entire lifetime," Menzies observed.

With the comment in mind, I later asked him how long he has been in Jamaica.

"Three years," he said.

"How're you liking it so far?"

"Fine," he replied. "I'm here to stay."

That indicates to me Menzies is already beginning to feel Jamaican.

If this island really is to be his home, Menzies has taken the long, scenic route to get here. He spent about half his life in Canada, but has lived in England and went to graduate school in the USA, where he lived for seven years.

He always knew he wanted to be in the arts, Menzies told his audience. At high school in Canada, he started studying drawing, painting and photography. "All through high school, it was art, art, art," he said. Because he felt he wasn't being artistically challenged, Menzies dropped out in final year, moved in with his brother, and started to paint and take photographs.

While he was studying at an art college in Ottawa for two years, Menzies thought he would become a painter and maker of photographic images. However, doing large-scale photographic installations made him realise that he was really interested in three-dimensional art.

"So," he said, "I moved away from photography and started to investigate mould making, carving and, generally, the physical sculpting process."

Menzies was never worried about how he was going to make money from art. "Money is a by-product of my work, something that happens through what I do. I really believe that, if you pursue something that you love to do, things work out," Menzies said.

He transferred to Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto where he got into casting, using bronze, aluminium and iron. The technical skills Menzies learnt enabled him, on graduating and working in the foundry at York University, to earn money helping other artists who didn't have those skills.

This was mutually beneficial. "I learnt a lot from working with other artists," Menzies said.

LANGUAGE OF MATERIALS

An aspect of his work that has remained constant is an investigation of the "language" of materials. "I'm constantly looking at how one material functions beside another, at the dialogue that's created in the communication between the two things," Menzies said.

Among the slides Menzies showed were a number of his pieces consisting of two or more different materials linked together. His practice until recently was to eschew colour and "allow the natural materials to be what they are, as opposed to concealing a material with a pigment or something."

At York University, Menzies developed an interest in the form of boats and, coincidentally, when he went on to graduate school in Virginia, found himself living on the river on which coal is transported from Ohio down to the Mississippi delta. As he continued to draw boats, the shape evolved into non-boat objects like rings and musical instruments.

On his creativity process, Menzies said that much of his inspiration comes from playing around. "I never want full control of my work," he explained. The surprise element could be lost and, with it, much of the pleasure he gets from working.

"I'm a bit of a hoarder," he confessed. "I collect stuff (for sculpting). I hear my students complaining that they can't afford material, but material is everywhere."

While studying in the United States, Menzies did an apprenticeship in making stringed instruments, with the sole intention of applying it to his sculpting. But others who saw that work started asking him to make instruments - a guitar, a banjo, perhaps - and this led him into another money-making stream.

He began to make both functioning and decorative musical instruments. He will make the same object, he said, for a retail store (as a craft object) and for a gallery. However, Menzies noted "the gallery has to sell it for thousands for it to make sense."

He related an anecdote of a friend who bought a bit of art for about $400 and saw the identical work in a gallery selling for $12,000. At the time that he was, as he put it, "playing the gallery game," Menzies was also building musical instruments on commission as well as touring with various bands, playing on gigs.

It was then that he made the statement which made me think of him as an integrated, not just multitalented artist: "With time and evolution, I came to realise it was the same game," Menzies said.

In other words, all his occupations are aspects of a whole.

Menzies' talk was the first of three School of Visual Arts Lecturers' Artist Talks for the semester.