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Spotlight On: Zac Shavrick, Catskills Sculptor and Metalworking Phenom

I met Zac Shavrick on his farm in the Catskills, where he was hosting a weekend-long sculpture garden festival of his work. I was greeted by a 10-foot happy monster named Big Ed, sculptures of gargoyle-looking creatures, “heads” of lettuce, and trippy dripping heads, all which decorated the open land. My favorite, the chess set, was a complete 36-piece bronze set which, to my dismay, had already been sold to one of the sculptor’s friends.

Shavrick, now 26, got his start at metalworking from a young age, and was practically born into the trade. He began welding at five years old, under the supervision of his father, who had begun his career creating Judaica pieces. Themes of chaos and absurdity infiltrate Zac’s sculptures, many of which have been showcased in galleries throughout New York City.

After the tour, we talked over beers at Benji and Jake’s, the best pizza place in the Catskills, which overlooks the beautiful White Lake. We were surrounded by some of Shavrick’s earlier works, including life-sized sculptures and intricately designed gates.

Shavrick’s enthusiasm about sculpting is seemingly innate, and his skills, cultivated from a young age, are seriously impressive. You can find his pieces on his website, or you can always take a trip to the Catskills for some heavy metal.

Tell me a little about your childhood and how you got into sculpting?

I started off, you know, being born and all that. My dad is a sculptor so I was born directly into the metalworking trade. By the time I was three years old I was laying out little sculptures on the table and having him weld them for me. By age five I was welding myself and by seven I sold a piece to one of my dad’s Judaica clients.

Growing up, I went to a small Hebrew day school in Sullivan County, and my dad would constantly take me out of school on job installs with him and out to do creative stuff. If there was a cool gallery opening in New York City that he knew I would like, he’d just say, ‘Lets go.’ I would also be in the city frequently, traveling back and forth to see my mother, who lived in Queens.

Were you ever attracted to other art mediums?

I always drew. My dad gave me a sketchbook and a pen and crayons, markers and whatever I wanted as far as art supplies. I was born and raised with metal. I’ve done clay and I’ve done some other stuff, but I just know how to use metal so well, it’s a part of me at this point.

How long will a piece take you? How long did Big Ed take, for example?

I made Big Ed in college, and he probably took about a month and a half. As far as making large-scale artwork, I’d say I’m pretty fast. I can bust out a sculpture of a reasonable size in two to three days. I’ve gotten it down so that I know what to do and how to do it.

Who are some of your influences?

Obviously my dad, who introduced me to the trade and taught me how to weld and use tools. My earliest influence was definitely Kenny Scharf. I don’t know if you know him, he’s all over the city these days. He’s having resurgence lately. He was part of the pop art era along with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol, but he’s one of the guys that lived through it. He does really wild, super colorful, poppy monsters and makes flowers and ocean scenes and Flintstones designs all mixed all together. Crazy, popped-out, trippy psychedelic stuff that I’ve always loved. I actually got to meet him when I was seven. My dad took me out of school and to his opening at the Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo and I gave Kenny a little sculpture. He actually liked a photo of mine on Instagram recently, so that’s kind of cool.

When I was about eight years old there was this place Old Mac’s Warehouse in Long Island City, and it was taken over by these three artists, the 3 Johns. They’re all metal sculptors and they covered two football fields worth of space with metal sculptures. It was mind-blowing. As a little kid I went there and my head was just spinning, everything was interactive. You could pull on handles and big mouths opened with heads inside of them, and there was an elevator inside someone’s head. There were little monsters in the elevator, little figures on the ceiling, and it was plastic and metal, and the floor was fully tiled.

One day we went to Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City and I saw a piece I knew was by one of the guys. I knew their different styles because I went there so often. I went into the sculpture park’s offices and asked for the artist’s information. They told me they couldn’t give me anything other than his shop information. I went there the same day. He wasn’t there so I left a note in my tiny kid handwriting: “Hi, I’m Zac I really like your work. I want to meet you.” I was in camp that day, and I get a call from my dad, who picked me up to go back to the city to hang out with J.J. Veronis. He’s been a really close friend ever since, and as a mentor he’s taught me so many techniques.

You use a recurring image of a face with these sharp teeth and crazy eyes, but you also have a friendly, happy thing going as well. The sculptures all seem to be going through some sort of chaotic ordeal. What does it mean to you?

That’s definitely there a lot. Certainly there’s some deep hidden psychology behind it. I showed it to a psychoanalyst who was my teacher at the time and he said it had a lot of connotations. I’m not familiar with the whole Freudian psychoanalysis of it, but it definitely has something. For me it’s all the craziness in the world put in some sort of delirium. It also draws from my obsessions with video games, comics, and cartoons. I had a personal connection with monsters and toys as a kid. That was my aesthetic and that embodies what I think are the coolest things.

With Jim and his mask, is he trying to shield himself from the world? Is that how you feel or is that a message on society being contaminated?

I think its closer to the latter. It’s definitely not me trying to shield myself from anything. I like to put my artwork out there and let people interpret it however they want; that’s totally fine with me. I think that’s part of what art is, a personal interpretation of someone else’s creation. As for Jim and his mask, it was for show called ‘There goes the neighborhood.’ The world itself is kind of going to pot, the way we’re treating it. It’s very sad, the way we deal with the world. Its not going to be long before everyone’s kind of screwed and has to wear a gas mask.

Can you walk me through the process of sculpting?

It’s all welding. Welding is the means. There are a lot of different forms of welding. I started with stick welding, which is like an electrode, and it burns down like a cigarette—it deposits the metal onto the table. You’re creating a circuit that’s so hot that it liquefies the metal you add. I do it with a big spool of wire that adds metal to very rapidly. I use lots of little pieces and I essentially glue pieces of metal together with liquid hot metal. And if I make a mistake, I just cut it off with a torch.

Do you feel it’s easy to make mistakes while sculpting?

Yeah, it is. I can be real finicky about the way things look and I’ll cut a piece about six or seven times before I’m happy with it. But there are a lot of fortuitous accidents that happen in this medium. I work very fast so I’m constantly putting pieces together and saying, ‘I like this or I don’t like that.’ I’ll go with it, and later on I have the option to fix it. It’s very forgiving because I can cut pieces apart and weld them back on.

Do you find there are seasons you’re more creative in? Is winter more difficult to work up here because its cold and pretty barren, or do you find inspiration in the area?

As an artist you sometimes have to turn it off. You can’t be on all the time and always produce your best stuff, so sometimes on days where you don’t do anything and you know you could do something, you feel terrible. But they’re almost necessary. You have to have those times off.

The winter here is impossible for me to work—it’s just too cold. I usually try and go away for a bit. I never want to quit for a whole season, that’s too much for me, but weeks off, they happen. In the summer if I’m pressured to do work, I’m good. I like the pressure. I like forcing myself to start a project the minute before the deadline and then it’s just crunch time. That’s how I work. It’s this sort of adrenaline-fueled rush, especially when there’s a real deadline.

One particular example that stands out is the chess set. I made all the figures to be cast in bronzes at school. They had two bronze casts per year and I didn’t get in the first time, so I had to make it in for the second one. Two days before the date I finished one rook and one bishop, and it was like, ‘Are you going to make this chess set or not?’ The wax work, which is the most intense part, had to be done the next day. So I stayed up all night and went crazy and made the 36 pieces. I had a few friends who stayed there with me getting ready for the big pour (before you pour the liquid bronze). I was there for two days straight without sleeping. By the end of it I was acting like one of my sculptures, just being totally ridiculous. It came out great, too.

You’ve created some really good animation. How did you get into that?

I invented that little process on my own as far as animating steel. Stop motion animation has been around for ages and I’ve always been inspired by Jan Svenkenmeyer and some of these old Swedish dudes who did claymation and stop motion. So I thought, ‘Why not do it with metal?’ I’d been filming videos that show me making a piece in stop motion so people could get a sense of how much work and how much time goes into each project. I’d condensed two weeks of me working into a really quick minute video—It’s basically me flying around the shop, building this piece, and it looks really cool. I would fidget around with little pieces and try and get them to move a bit, and I noticed it wasn’t too hard for me to do, so I tried it out with a figure walking and it turned out really well. It’s very labor intensive so I haven’t been able to make too many; I made a few high-level ones and they’re fun to do but they’re exhausting.

How has Judaism affected your art?

I’ve made menorahs, mezuzahs, I’ve made every piece of Judaica at some point in my life. My dad sold many Judaica pieces, so I’d say I’m directly influenced because the Judaica world is what spurred my dads sculpture career. He started off as a wrought iron welder, made a few sculptures, and then started making mezuzahs, which became his bread and butter. He developed a large clientele for that and he’s got some pieces in the synagogue at the Kotel. When I was about seven or eight he started focusing on regular sculpture, and that’s when I got involved.

Sometimes his clients would want me to do something, so I’d make them something. My whole life has been surrounded my Judaism, so I’m sure it’s there in my work. A lot of my guys have big noses so there’s that. Whenever I make something it has some ‘Jewy’ qualities.

Do you sketch before you create?

I sketch a lot but I don’t necessarily sketch what I’m going to make. I do if there’s a big project or if a client wants it. Usually I have an idea in my head for a sculpture and it just happens—I just go with it. Sometimes I’ll get into a little theme and I’ll start drawing on it, and that will form into a sculpture.

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