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Precious Metals - Jim Gary
02/10/2009 - By by Kristen Weston
Remembering Jim Gary - world renowned sculptor.
(Editors Note: This story, which originally ran in the July 2005 issue of Living In Colts Neck, is dedicated to the memory of Jim Gary. Please take a look back with us into the amazing life of an extraordinary man.)
When you think of a junkyard what comes to mind? Exactly what the name implies: junk. What if you were to think outside the box and view it from another perspective - perhaps not a junkyard at all, but instead a graveyard filled with skeletal remains of almost animal-like structure? Well, that’s exactly what renowned sculptor Jim Gary did, and soon he began creating massive prehistoric metal fossils, dinosaurs to be specific. From his time as a child growing up with 10 brothers and sisters in the rural countryside that is Colts Neck, Gary showed signs of ambition and independence. His childhood years were spent doing odd jobs and yard work for his family and neighbors, such as E. Donald and Dorothy Sterner, as well as raising cows, pigs, and chickens. Being one of the only African- American families residing in Colts Neck during the 1940’s, the Gary family strove to make ends meet; the philosophy at that time was, more or less, that if you can walk you can work. Gary worked hard to help his family. He was an ambitious child, working hard from morning to night, and not much has changed in his adult years. Gary is still working hard creating unique structures and extremely realistic dinosaurs. His ability to think outside the box by working hard has led him to become an actively creative individual and artist with a slew of life experiences and a rare imagination.
Gary has always felt he had an ability to be and do something different. His superior talent in aspects of welding, his imagination and creation of realistic and abstract art, has proven him to be one of the world’s leading sculptors. Yet while his work is known around the world, it doesn’t have the same effect here in Colts Neck or, for that matter, in New Jersey as a whole.
For over 40 years Gary has dedicated himself to leaving his mark on the world, and art is the occupation that has ultimately brought him fame. His artistic direction has brought him a great variety of accomplishments and appreciation for not only art, but for all the people he has met on the way. He has been a featured guest on many news broadcasting station, in news articles and books, CNN, Ripley’s Believe It or Not (twice!), New York Times (twice), National Geographic World (1978), Today Show (New York & Philadelphia), Captain Kangaroo, American Welding Journal, and Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge Yearbook (1985), just to name a few. However, Gary never thought that he would one day be sculpting dinosaurs or anything of that nature.
Actually, the way he explains it is that he "stumbled" upon it due to his need to get rid of some automobile and farm machinery parts in a stockyard where he used to work. Gary had plans to work as a mechanic, and has always had the ability to work well with his hands. This led Gary to enlist in the Navy, where he earned an aviation mechanic’s license. He pumped gas for a few years at a Colts Neck gas station while awaiting a position at the Job Corps. He then made a career as a trainer at Job Corps, where he mastered the intricate art of welding. After three years there, Gary created a gallery in Colts Neck and soon began working at a former chicken coop in Howell Township, where he began his dinosaur creations and abstract art. LICN took a walk on the wild side with Gary at his prehistoric adorned home in mid-May to discuss his artistic talent, his very fulfilling life, and his experiences on the way to the top.
LICN: Is being a sculptor something that you have always aspired to one day become?
JG: Actually, being a sculptor is something I kind of stumbled across. I worked as a mechanic and realized that there were an awful lot of extra parts lying around. I had to figure out something to do with these extra parts. In the arts you have to be different, and I was looking for exactly that…something different to do. The junkyard reminded me of a graveyard…something different. Then I just ran with the idea of using this extra junk. So I began pulling car parts out and putting them back together in a different form. One thing led to another, and my work started to get bigger and bigger.
LICN: Did you ever use anything other than metal to piece your work together?
JG: Yes, I actually started with wood. I realized that you can’t really stretch wood to where you want it to be or how big you want it to be. With metal you are able to stretch the parts as far as you would like them to go.
LICN: What was the first piece of work that you created?
JG: The first things were birds. I started out making regular dayto-day birds, and some abstracts here and there. From that came the dinosaurs.
LICN: So from the regular everyday birds came prehistoric birds?
JG: Yes, it started with the pterodactyl. The pterodactyl seemed to me to be a more realistic creation than some of the other things I was working on at the time, like the abstracts.
LICN: What did you imagine yourself doing as an adolescent?
JG: I wanted to be a mechanic or some type of machinist. It was hard to find a job doing that at the time. But I eventually found a position at the Job Corps, which was my first real job. I taught there for a few years and began my welding there too. I tried to find the trainees I was teaching something to do, and I guess my work as an artist really started out there.
LICN: If you were to describe your work to someone who had never seen it, how would you describe it?
JG: It’s really hard to describe what I do. I guess the best way to do that is to say that it is totally abstract but at the same time it is definitely very realistic. It’s quite hard to explain it really.
LICN: Obviously your sculptures are quite large and extremely involved. Can you explain the process which you must go through to get your work to what it is?
JG: I go into the shop and I can be in there for three straight weeks at a time. I focus completely on that particular project. The process that your mind goes through when you’re doing this is to just keep building and don’t quit. I don’t know where it comes from, but I don’t quit, I just keep going until it is completed. When you’re really putting these pieces together and look at all the parts around you and where they are supposed to fit, you can’t stop. I take all the time I can to make these pieces fit in all the right places.
LICN: How long does it take to complete a dinosaur?
JG: The medium-sized dinosaurs can take three months. They are very concentrated and full of time. When I put these pieces together I can see it move and the symmetries of the sculpture.
LICN: You are obviously greatly dedicated to your work and the outcome of your particular projects. Do you have something in mind when you go into the shop?
JG: Basically, I look at the parts I have when I’m in the shop and see what I need. For instance, if I need a shoulder blade I go out to the junkyard and get one. I personally know the automobile pretty well. When I go into the junkyard I know where to get the particular piece.
LICN: So are you able to take the automobile and visualize it as something like a dinosaur?
JG: Most everything that is in an automobile relates back to the animal. It is almost as if the automobile itself is a living, breathing creature. When I go into the shop and begin working on a piece I have something in mind, but I never know if that something will be built at that moment. Like the stegosaurus - I got all of those pieces from a junkyard. Pretty much, I go out to the yard and buy the parts that I need and just do it.
LICN: Why dinosaurs?
JG: At the time when I was in the arts I was building these kinds of things, but I wasn’t unique enough to do my own type of thing. I tried to come up with something that was going to be totally my own. It was tough to try and do this and figure out what’s next because everyone had done animals. Then I came up with the idea of sculpting a skeleton. You know, people really enjoy these prehistoric beings and they sort of look at it as an abstract personality, but they are really looking at a dinosaur…the skeleton of a dinosaur. The way I see it was if I was to make it in the arts I needed to make my fingerprint on the world and have people want to look at my work. I look at my work and see what an accomplishment I have made to the world and myself. It is very rewarding to me. It’s just a tremendous feeling to meet all these different people at museums and around the world. When a museum features your work and has all kinds of information on your work it is a really big thing. People at the time when I started in this field that had work in museums were really big people. It’s just a very rewarding feeling.
LICN: Do you have a favorite piece?
JG: (Laughs) That’s something that is always so hard to pick because you have a whole list of things you can really pick and choose from. (Points to a triceratops) I always liked this piece right here a lot.
LICN: What other types of sculptures have you created besides dinosaurs?
JG: There are so many different types of things I have done. When I go to art shows there is so much that goes into creating these pieces and so much to think about and create. (Points to a torso of a woman called "Universal Woman" sculpted of automotive washers) I have done this torso, plenty of birds, abstracts, and tons of things. Some [artists] stick to one type of work, but I like to do a variety of different types of things, I guess to please myself. I try to come up with something new for each art show. And at the time, that was the way to win money, which really wasn’t that much. But it was my goal to win the show every time.
LICN: And did you win?
JG: Yes! (He laughs). I won so much and I never got tired of doing it. I still wanted to go to the shows and come up with something new each time… I always needed to do something different.
LICN: What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in the arts that has made you stand out from all other artists?
JG: Well, I won the first Pioneer Award for New Jersey, which was exclusive to the state. It was really an interesting thing to receive this kind of award, but a really neat thing too. I also had a show in New York City where I was surrounded by a bunch of topnotch artists and sculptors from around the world. This particular show in New York City was for the best exhibit and I happened to win the prize for that show. I was embarrassed to be winning the prize because these people that I was around were all very well known in the arts…it was just an unbelievable thing that happened. I had attended shows in and around New York, but I wasn’t in any of the museums in New York City. Soon after winning this particular show, the MOMA museum asked me why I never came to them to feature my art. (He laughs) I told them that I had been knocking on their door for months and years.
LICN: You have been featured on a number of broadcast television shows and have been in a variety of newspapers and magazines. How does that make you feel?
JG: It’s overwhelming sometimes, but it is really amazing. What keeps me going is the fact that people have some kind of interest in my work. [For example] I opened this show at the Smithsonian one year and I can still remember how weird it was to be doing this. Actually, when I opened up at the Smithsonian I was also featuring my work in Japan. I flew to Japan for the interviews and things that I had to do and I couldn’t have been in Japan for more than eight hours when I had to pick up and go fly back to New Jersey to make the show at the Smithsonian. But sometimes I wonder if the people here [in New Jersey] realize that I am a local artist…if they realize that I am always here, not in some other part of the world.
LICN: What you are saying really is that you are given all of this attention in other parts of the world, especially Japan, but locally in New Jersey no one really knows who you are?
JG: Yes. In Japan I am on television shows and on buses and things like that, but when I am here no one knows that I am.
LICN: Is there anything that you would like the local community to know about you or your work that maybe they really don’t know?
JG: The people here look at the pieces and the parts of my work instead of looking at the animal. You shouldn’t approach art and begin to pull it apart. I think that people should really look at it and enjoy the piece of work instead of saying "well, it’s just a bunch of car parts." You can very well do the same thing with a painting and say, "well it’s just a canvas and some paint." When I work on these pieces I try to camouflage them well so when you do look at it everything just seems to flow together.
LICN: What other types of things are you involved with besides your work?
JG: Being a full-time artist was a full-time job…there wasn’t much else I could do because being an artist trying to make it you had to promote and you had to build. All of my time was spent at shows and there was nothing else. I mean, I would take a chance every so often and go out to a movie or something like that, but that was it.
LICN: Are there any artists that have influenced you and your work?
JG: I have always admired Picasso’s work and how he managed to put things together. I try to go a step beyond that so that I can put a mass of pieces together instead of just two or three.
LICN: You have attended schools to teach kids about your work. What do you tell them?
JG: I remember it had something to do with what my father always told me. He said that idle hands were the tools of the devil. I have always kept myself busy throughout my life. And while working in the arts I realized that it’s a way to say to the kids that there is something out there to do. If you want to do something there are things around that are right at your fingertips you just have to look.
LICN: Do you think that your work will have historical significance in the future like Van Gogh’s or Picasso’s painting do?
JG: I hope so. Working with kids from all over the world, I have noticed that they have really responded to my work. I am very appreciative for that. You know, I get a kick out of it when a parent or teacher comes up to me and says that their son is doing things like I do. Also, kids will write letters and send me a picture of one of the dinosaurs and tell me they want to buy it from me. (Gary laughs) They don’t even realize the size of them and how big they really are, they just see the picture and think that’s what they are getting.
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