Mystery Object

Mystery Object

On a farm burrowed into the woods of Bethany, something strange rises from rock and root: a monolith formed from the remains of an older one. Its maker says the unnamed sculpture, a tall sinuous swoop carved from the stump of a felled oak tree, is “purely abstract.” Chimeric evocations—gills at the base, a lick of flame at the peak, a grooved tendon between them—are there for those who want them, but a search for more unified interpretations—ones that encompass and connect the whole sculpture—proved a serious challenge. Trying different angles, I saw a sea flower swaying with an imagined tide; a gnarled, perhaps infernal finger arching toward the sky; a seahorse gliding over a conch on the ocean floor. Yet I couldn’t ignore the chinks in these images—the elements that fought whatever interpretations I was auditioning—and the fact that only specific vantage points revealed them. The mystery they made was compelling but unsolvable.

The sculpture’s maker is also something of a mystery. He goes by Mig or, as on his Instagram, Miggy. He declined to give me his birth name for this article, though he mentioned he grew up in Derby. He said he’s a carpenter with a background in construction, and he referred, vaguely, to some dark crucible more than a decade ago that led him to become an artist. But his mystery encompasses the paradox that, when I met with him, he mostly felt like an open book, sharing intimate stories laced with thick, gravelly laughter that reminded me of a lawnmower engine starting to catch.

Mig’s first commission, ordered by Joshua Pekar, a friend who wanted to stoke his new life as an artist, was “a dystopic Americana version” of the iconically tacky leg lamp from A Christmas Story. Pekar’s “only requirements,” Mig remembers, “were that it had to [involve] a black leather combat boot and barbed wire. I’m like, ‘Okay, not to my taste, but you know what, for the price, sure.’” Ultimately, using a prosthetic leg to complete the concept, “It was a black leather combat boot sitting on a brake rotor that I cleaned up and spray painted. The lampshade was ringed with barbed wire all the way around. And you know, it came out very nice. Again, not my bag, but I still enjoy seeing it every time I go over.”

Mig’s commissioners this time were Jeremy and Stephanie Shulick, owners of the now-transformed oak tree and the land where it rises, which, unlike the sculpture, has a name: The Little Farm on the Hill. To Mig’s delight and perhaps also terror, the Shulicks left the artistic direction entirely up to him. This led to an early encounter Mig recalls with some glee, when the couple arrived home to find him 12 feet in the air, “sitting up on top of the tree, smoking a bowl.” Like Major Kong riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove, “I gave them the old cowboy hat wave, you know, as one does when caught doing such a thing,” but what he was really doing up there was “thinking of the direction and possibilities” for the sculpture.

Whatever ideas he landed on that night, Mig was soon reminded that making sculptorly plans for a tree stump (or any raw piece of wood) is pointless before the bark—along with “any large cracks, insect damage [and] water damage” hidden underneath—has been removed. Performed with a draw knife and other tools, this first step reveals the artist’s true canvas and marks the point where, as Mig puts it, prior plans “[go] to shit.”

Deciding from that point on to let the material and the moment guide him—while committed to ensuring that the finished work would last for as long as possible, including by managing how rainwater would flow off of and away from it—the process was mostly “chainsaws from there,” he says, including an angle grinder augmented with a chainsaw attachment for “tighter spots.” At one end of the sculpture’s base, where a large rock is embedded in the earth, he found himself cutting “right next to the stone with a chainsaw blade. Nerve-wracking is not the word, my friend, okay?” If the blade were to touch stone, “You could snap the chain, and it could kill you. You ruin the chain at least, you know. I killed two chains in two days… and that’s not good news, but the good news is I didn’t die.” Each time he snapped a chain, he says, he had to pause for the rest of the day to regain his composure, even while wearing protective gear. His toolkit also involved chisels and a pry bar; a can of spray paint and a Sharpie to make guide lines for his cuts; additional grinder attachments and an oscillating sander to smooth surfaces down; and epoxy and polyurethane to seal, protect and finish the wood.

As for the composition, it wasn’t finished—at least provisionally—until Mig slotted a shard of dimpled stained glass, azure blue, into an opening near the peak. Along with the Shulicks and local artist Liz Pagano, who had first told me about the project and arranged my visit, I watched as Mig ascended a ladder and began to wire the glass into place. The June sun was strong. It had only been a half an hour since I had first laid eyes on the sculpture, and already I could see how drastically the day’s simple shifting light had changed it, adding another dimension to the work’s mystique.

Mig made the sculpture, which is set for a public unveiling this Sunday, to endure as a physical object for many years to come. And thanks to its formal ambiguity, he also created a source of aesthetic mystery that may endure for just as long.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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