A work in the woods
TUPPER LAKE — Barney Bellinger moved excitedly between his sculptures at the Wild Center on Thursday, talking about the metals he used to create them and how he formed them into figures suggesting large insects or plants.
He was taking the Enterprise on a tour of his new exhibit of sculptures titled “Shape, Form and Light” for this article, but he was also working as an impromptu tour guide for the nature museum’s guests that day. He’d stop and chat with anyone he saw admiring his work, learn a little about them and tell them about his process.
Bellinger, of Mayfield, has been a self-employed artist for 51 years, working with any medium he can get his hands on: steel, wood, paint and glass.
He builds functional art — furniture, paintings, lamps and windows — as well as purely expressionist sculptures.
Bellinger also has an exhibit at the Tupper Arts center, which opened Friday titled “Rustic to Moderne.” It’s an apt name because there’s a tension in his work stemming from his inspiration from both nature and the industrial age.
He intertwines roots and rusted metal until they are indistinguishable.
His modern works incorporate natural elements and his recreations of the natural world incorporate industrial machinery.
Nature and nurture
Bellinger is self-taught. He got his start as an artist in a blue-collar trade. He learned to weld in his dad’s garage in Johnstown when he was 14.
He started painting when he decorated motorcycle helmets and learned sculpting by designing fenders on mini-bikes. He used to race motocross and build old-school choppers.
“I was just doing what I did,” Bellinger said. “Metal just came into my hands and I worked with it.”
He keeps plenty of metal around him. His shop in Mayfield is awash with flotsam and jetsam he is waiting to find a use for.
He describes his father as a “junk collector” and a bit of a hobo. He’d keep tractors and metal hunks all over his yard. Bellinger is now the same way.
He admits he probably has “more stuff than I should have.” But he feels the excess is necessary.
“You can’t sell from an empty cart and you can’t create from an empty palate,” Bellinger said. “So the more material you have, I think, the easier it is to create.”
So, in his shop, he surrounds himself with possibilities. He said he’s always “foraging” for new material.
“When I’m driving down the road … my eyes are always in the woods or on the roadside,” Bellinger said. “It’s dangerous. My wife barely gets in the car with me.”
His wife Susan is very supportive of his work and habits. She helps move the hefty sculptures around and is quick to promote his work.
Metal and music
Bellinger’s work is already prolific through the North Country. He built furniture for Camp Topridge for seven years. He’s done work for the North Brook Lodge and Lake Placid Lodge.
Former Adirondack Store and Gallery owners Ruth and John Prime sold his first bits of rustic furniture in 1992. That same year, he was first featured at the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake — now the Adirondack Experience. He’s since become part of the permanent collection there.
Bellinger said he’s always looking for the “next thing” to work on.
When a fire destroyed most of his motorcycle tools and inventory in 1980, he had to start anew. He chose to evolve, and began a custom sign business. He evolved again when he started on rustic furniture. Eventually, he said, it’s always time to evolve.
His work depicts the backcountry he’s observed while hiking, fishing and camping in the American West and Adirondacks.
Bellinger says he’s got a sort of photographic memory.
He’s been in the woods since he was 4-years-old, walking around with his grandfather. The Bellingers now have two grandaughters of their own. Bellinger said he enjoys fishing and exploring with them to find new inspiration.
The woods on the Wild Center campus where Bellinger’s sculptures reside also mix nature with the modern. Speakers are hidden in the trees — through the chattering of birds, the compositions of musician Eric Sturr can be heard. The album Sturr composed under the name Whatever Penny is titled “Iron Harvest” and was created for this specific exhibit, based on the sounds in Bellinger’s steel shop.
Pounding drums and sharp strings pierce through the trees and around the metallic statues.
Bellinger has suffered for his work. Heavy steel and hot iron make for dangerous mediums to work with. He’s been burned badly, broken his arm and wrapped in a sheet of molten plastic — he said he could see down through his skin to his bone.
He has trouble lifting his right arm now because of all the hard work. The sculptures at the Wild Center mark some of the last of his heavy metal work. He said he’s moving to lighter metals now.
During the tour on Thursday, as Bellinger brushed pine needles around underneath a sculpture named “Worldly Bird,” and the final notes of Whatever Penny’s “Passage” played in the forest, Bellinger said he wants to remind viewers at the Wild Center to turn around every so often when they’re walking through the woods to see all the different ways a sculpture can look from different angles.