Stu Martell's reluctant retrospective, Saturday only at Outsiders Art | Arts

Stu Martell's reluctant retrospective, Saturday only at Outsiders Art

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DURHAM—Out of appreciation for the public discomfort of a unique maker of many various things and deft handler of many different materials—the word “artist” embarrasses him—I’m only going to use his name in the headline. He didn’t ask to be the center of attention, but he’s summoning the tolerance.

Detail of Stu Martells North Topsail Island, a frieze of fused glass, stone, wood and copper
  • Photo by Chris Vitiello
  • Detail of Stu Martell's "North Topsail Island," a frieze of fused glass, stone, wood and copper
Most artists perpetually network and schmooze and pester to get a show at a gallery for a month or two. His retrospective Art Outside the Frame will last a whole three hours—from 1-4 p.m. on March 2 at Outsiders Art Gallery in Durham—and he’s not certain he’ll make it through.

So why should you go? Because you’ve not seen handiwork like his. Unless, that is, you are one of the lucky folks who’ve hired him over the years to make a stone wall and waterfall in your yard, or to build a radiant wooden sconce for a living room wall, or to craft a fused-glass and poplar-branch entryway for your house.

You just don’t often see an artist who can think and work in so many different media. Truly it’s as if he doesn’t consider media as such. He just looks at a material like stone, leather, glass or wood, intuits its properties, and begins melding them together. He never draws plans, though these are precision works.

If we can’t call him an artist, then an alchemist? An Archimedes?

I asked him if he ever made mistakes, merging such disparate materials into a composition. He thought about it a minute. “You can’t really get a fuck-up,” he said. “You really just get an education.”

Stu Martells fertility motif, glass
Most artists have a story for how they made every piece. He has a story for every individual component of every piece. The poplar boards of a yoga studio door with gorgeous inset stained glass were once the second-floor joists from the Danville Flour Mill. That sconce is faced with a discarded Person County Schools blackboard. The dark walnut that frames a panel of glass set into slate? He cured it for 12 years in his studio in an unnamed wild near Hurdle Mills.

You can glimpse a deeper understanding of the material stuff of life in these disparate works brought together from his clients’ homes and businesses. Commissions and inspirations, all of it. To see his body of work, you’d have to knock on a lot of doors in a lot of distant places. The largest work, hidden away down a nameless dead-end road somewhere in Durham County, is a spectacular three-level stone wall set into a hillside. He thinks maybe 300,000 pounds of rock are in it.

But motifs run through it all, too. He often fashions a female fertility symbol into his work. It glows and glistens in opaque glass, set into a massive granite slab. Fish also appear, frequently paired in mirror opposition, describing the essential balance of being.

“Everybody’s got a good side and a bad side,” he says of this doubling. “It’s always there, and a fine line between the two. It’s as simple as you get.”

If you catch him in conversation on Saturday, and you should, his most common words will likely be: “simple,” “poetry” and “balance.” But he’s not particularly serious. Beneath a giant wooden foot carved out of sweet gum which used to hang over the door of his leather shop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, lift the white leather petal of his pornographic “jack-off in the pulpit.” You’ll wish he’d saved some “pussywillows” and “two-lips” to include in this show.

His sisters Jan and Judy have cajoled him into assembling a book of his widely scattered artifacts so they can be appreciated as a unique body of work. Barefoot Press has created a comparably beautiful book and photographers Alec Himwich and D.L. Anderson have filled it with terrific images.

The book is impressive, but you really should hit the opening to talk to the man. If you’re a maker of things, start a conversation about making. Watch his hewn hands move. And listen. Because after three hours, he’ll be gone.

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