Editor's note: This is another in the Star's summer-long series on visual artists who call the Old Pueblo home. Today: metal sculptor and artist Steven Derks.
Steven Derks is a hard artist to label. He paints.
He creates towering metal sculptures out of found objects.
He makes furniture.
He shoots photographs.
He even does ceramics. Derks owns a wheel and says he aspires "to have a little studio next to a river and throw pots all day."
Until then, he'll continue to be the ultimate multihyphenate artist.
Though his paintings outsell his sculpture, Derks is known for his oversized metalwork. You may have seen his pieces outside Beyond Bread eateries or Hacienda del Sol or Biosphere 2 or the Mesquite Corporate Center on that stretch of River Road near Campbell Avenue.
Or just driving past his gallery and studio on North Main Avenue, where a forest of metal grows in the front yard.
Derks refers to his metalwork as narrative sculpture. Putting different found objects together creates a new reality, he says.
"It illustrates an implied allegory," Derks says, pointing out a nearly 6-foot-tall piece that started out as a discarded drill bit. Thin "branches" of metal curl around the painted bit, and an apple sits on the top.
"It has a sort of Adam and Eve feel," Derks says, failing to remember the sculpture's name. In fact, the card alongside it actually goes with another piece.
"I have an ambivalence about naming and signing," Derks, 54, explains. "I like things in process. When you sign it, it's done."
Apples - along with houses and ladders - appear often in Derks' sculpture.
"I sort of like cheap metaphors," Derks says, smiling. "You can do anything with them."
Derks' way of putting together disparate objects is what first attracted Bill Dantzler to his work about 20 years ago. Dantzler, an art enthusiast and professor emeritus of physiology at the University of Arizona, has amassed quite a collection of Derks' work. He and his wife, Barbara, have nine of his metal sculptures as well as a few paintings.
"He has a real sense of assembling found materials, which is in a long tradition starting with Picasso and (Julio) González," Dantzler says. "He cuts and uses shapes and comes up with intriguing sculptures that make you look at space and how they occupy space."
For Derks, who moved to Tucson in 1981, working with metal is a social process, somewhat out of necessity.
"It's physically hard," he says.
Derks designs the pieces. Some of his pencil sketches are stuck to an old fridge in the outdoor metal shop "like kids' artwork," he jokes. His longtime assistant, Ian Houghton, welds the pieces of the sculptures together.
Painting, on the other hand, is a solo endeavor.
"I want to do that all by myself," says Derks, who paints outside at his home near Swan and River roads. "I can get into a zone there."
Self-taught in all his artistic endeavors, Derks doesn't plan when he paints - he just starts grabbing things. A stick can be a paintbrush. He might use a paint-can lid. He might just pour enamel paint straight onto his canvas, which is usually wood or aluminum, sometimes sheets of acrylic.
The paintings are allowed to dry in the sun, and Derks will come back to scrape off paint and see what happens.
"It's a progression of experiments with each piece," he says. "I just roll with it."
If you go
Metal artist and painter Steven Derks
• Where you'll find his work: At his studio-gallery, 801 N. Main Ave., by appointment only; 370-1610.
• Price range: Paintings start at $100, while large sculptures can cost $20,000.
• Learn more: www.stevenderks.com
Before his career as a metal sculptor, Steven Derks painted and sold drums to fund a Jesuit priest's efforts to get medical supplies to Tarahumara Indians in remote parts of Mexico. Former President Bill Clinton bought one of the drums and displayed it in the Oval Office.
Contact Kristen Cook at email@example.com or 573-4194.