Large-scale sculptor highlights the beauty and terror of the automobile

Nov 21, 2012

Artist T.J. Aitken will dedicate his sculpture called Renaissance Race to the City of Plainwell. It looks like large spools of paper twisting and turning in the wind, with angelic figures cut into the ends of each roll. The work represents Plainwell’s past as a center for paper manufacturing, and how residents are working to revitalize the city. Aitken says he has always been fascinated by machines.

“Things whirring and moving—and paper particularly. If you’ve ever seen a paper plant in operation, oh my gosh, these great big rolls and the stuff is flying and it’s going through all kind of rollers. And there’s lots of big activity," says Aitken. "And there’s giant vats in this old plant for the pulp, with these bizarre fluids and lots of gages and pipes everywhere. And it was an intense environment as all big manufacturing sites are. And I wanted to pay homage to that.”

If it weren’t for the sculptures, you would think T.J. Aiken’s studio was an auto shop. There are car seats for chairs, pieces of car doors on the wall, and a collection of overhead consoles. Aitken worked as a designer for GM for many years. He says the flat consoles always reminded him of faces.

“You’re sitting in the driver’s seat and this is up and to your right. And they actually designed words on buttons that people had to push that from drivers’ position you couldn’t see them— because they were on the back side of the button because they always looked at them at the wall. So, I started doing these spoofs and I would take photographs of these consoles and sketch on them and do these wacky African mask type of things.”

And if that doesn’t clue you in to Aitken’s theme, the front end of a classic car sculpture that’s more than 9 feet tall stands against the wall of the studio—part of a work called The Big Rag Top. Aitken says cars are a big part of our lives as Americans.

“Everybody has a car. Everybody drives. And consequently, we are dependent on the roads and the systems here and this machine," he says. "Well I worked in that industry and looked and what’s happening, and we’re consuming the planet’s resources to fund our lifestyle—all built around this silly machine. And it’s coming to an end. If you look at the numbers, we can’t sustain pushing two tons of steel around with fossil fuels for another century. And so in our century here it’s going to decline and Americans are not ready. We have no plans for other infrastructure. We have no forward thinking at all of how to do this country without the automobile. And so I came out of the industry with a huge passion to tell that story and put that message out there. Plus, I designed cars for a living. I mean I sculpted cars inside and out. I know all about them and I know how to work them and it’s common territory for me.”

You can see this idea of the changing car culture in his work called Car Chase.

“There’s this antiquated American automobile that’s being chased by these bugs and they’re all made out of Volkswagen components," Aitken says. "And so there’s this foreign invader that’s chasing this American antiquity, and it’s come to a screeching halt in this parking lot displacing these human figures in the waves. It’s a frozen moment in time. And it’s kind of indicative of the way people like myself have been displaced from the auto industry.”

Aitken says he wants people to be able to relate to his work.

“The common man. In every single work that I do, I want something that people who know absolutely nothing about art can enjoy and can recognize and like,” he says.

T.J. Aitken will dedicate his sculpture Renaissance Race to the City of Plainwell next Friday at 6 p.m. in Pell Plaza.