Out of This World

I n a Westville yard along the West River, various entities—a squid, a sea slug, a shell, a little-known piece of plant biology called an elaiosome—are scattered about. Some are complete. Others wait for their maker to finish endowing them with form and luster.

They’re sculptures, and the man they’re waiting for is Gar Waterman, who’s been doing this kind of thing for 35 years now. Waterman’s body of work ranges from stone to bronze to glass to wood, and from large public works like the Wooster Street Arch to intricate metallic scarabs set to accompany a 2017 beetle exhibit at the Peabody Museum. Not one for artistic ideology, you can nonetheless see an aesthetic point of view in his work, which has a tendency to find its muses among the designs of nature—most of all its bones, beetles and seeds.

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Perhaps the largest subset of Waterman’s sculpture is his Feral Seeds series, inspired by seeds, naturally, but incorporating a healthy dose of abstraction. Some look fit for aerodynamic flight; others seem to be mid-sprout. Considering their size, with some over six feet long, it’s fun to imagine what giant trees they might have fallen from, or what enormous flora they might have become, were they real.

Waterman’s fascination with the melding of natural and human handiwork took root thanks to the work of his father, Stan Waterman, a five-time Emmy-winning pioneer of underwater filmmaking. Accompanying Dad on a dive, Waterman remembers seeing a steel shipwreck, its flat plates and straight girders overgrown with “beautiful soft corals and sensuous forms.”

It had a profound effect on Waterman. “I’m very fond of the whole interface between the organic and the architectural,” Waterman says, “and how nature reclaims architecture.” In his own work, you could say the reverse occurs, with Waterman claiming nature’s forms for his special brand of architecture.

Within his Ossomuro series, works are inspired by skeletons, though an anatomist won’t necessarily find recognizable bone organizations among them. You can see skulls, femurs, scapulae and more joined together in unnatural yet fascinating fusions. Each piece leaves you wondering what kind of creature could have left it behind, and whether it flapped, paddled, slithered or galloped.

His Coleoptera series draws inspiration from a different kind of skeleton, fusing morphological features of beetle exoskeletons into intricate, often eerie forms. One work, a relatively slender, contoured piece fashioned from black Spanish Marquinia marble, was inspired by the thorax, midsection and interlocking plates of a beetle’s body. The top reminded me a bit of the head of H. P. Lovecraft’s interdimensional being, Cthulhu.

Waterman is simply enamored with the beauty of natural forms, and it’s out of respect that he doesn’t try to replicate them bit for bit. “The originals are so exquisitely made there’s little point in trying to copy them,” he says, adding that he sees a growing number of artists incorporating scientific imagery into their work and feels a strong affinity with that impulse. He hopes reinterpreting the beauty of the natural world as fine art will give people pause to think on what humanity’s world-building is destroying in the process.

And yet, there’s an otherworldliness to Waterman’s work that’s hard to shake—an alien beauty. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, considering the parallel between Waterman’s process and science fiction’s, each deploying a mixture of natural understanding and creative imagination. That his organic forms are created with inorganic media—stone, metal and the like—pushes the otherworldliness to an unsettling place.

Whether or not such uncanny feelings comprise the crux of his works’ appeal, there’s undoubtedly an appeal. For 35 years Waterman’s been achieving the dream of artists everywhere: making enough money from his art to support himself, though at times, he says, he’s lived “close to the bone.”

When asked why he thinks his work sells, Waterman laughs and responds, “I have no idea,” adding, “The art world is all smoke and mirrors. Jeff Koons sells a poodle balloon sculpture for 50 million dollars at auction. Is it worth 50 million dollars? I don’t know.”

“Art is such a strange creature,” Waterman reflects. “What resonates with people is a total crapshoot. … I’ve been very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to make my living doing this. Every day that I get to come down here [to my workshop] and make a beetle or put together a post-apocalyptic orchid… I’m eternally grateful for it.”

Gar Waterman
West Rock Studio – 425 West Rock Ave, New Haven (map)
Receives visitors by appointment.
(203) 397-3966

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1, 2, 3 and 5 by Daniel Shkolnik; photos 3 and 6 by Dan Mims. Images 3 and 6 depict works in progress at the time of their photographing.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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