Eric Powell harvests the raw material for his singular steel sculptures from a variety of places: the bay at low tide, abandoned mines in the Nevada desert, junkyards, flea markets and old machine shops. A master of bricolage, Powell deftly embeds such objects as rusted old tools, tractor parts, and even a dredged-up, sea-battered boat into his work—which ranges from fine art to large public installations to residential commissions, such as gates and other architectural metalwork. “There is something powerful about giving these obsolete mechanisms new life,” Powell says. As such, his Berkeley, California, studio is filled with kinetic sculptures and abstract works.
The artist’s love affair with steel started at age 9 when he made sculptures out of coffee cans. Powell later studied art at the California College of the Arts in Oakland before moving to Santa Fe for a time, where he learned to weld. “Steel is magical, alchemical,” Powell enthuses. “It’s the strongest and most common building material, yet it’s as malleable as clay. Given the right amount of heat and force, you can pound, mold and bend it into virtually any shape.”
Powell’s affinity for using steel to describe the story of a place enriches the functional art he makes for private residences and public spaces. One San Francisco entry gate, for example, is composed of plow and tractor parts unearthed at his client’s Kentucky farm: removed from their original context, they are an elegant reminder of her home. When the Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission enlisted the artist to craft a welcome gate for Bella Vista Park using local artifacts, he combined these with the embedded busts of noteworthy denizens, such as Gertrude Stein.
For the public art piece Archaeology, Powell abstracted objects excavated from the former Wallis Ranch in Dublin, California, to create a powerful, site-specific sculpture that can be climbed on as well as admired. Fabricated in steel with internal armatures, the Stonehenge-scaled pulley, hook, horseshoe and gear illuminate the area’s agrarian history, creating a visual bridge from past to present.
“I love creating work that becomes an integral part of a cityscape or landscape,” says Powell, who recharges with pilgrimages to the desert, where he builds work that is left to the elements. This meditative practice helps hone his creative focus—and allows him to forage for a new trove of discarded treasures to be rendered into art.