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Art People: John Weeks is into metal


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"It'll cut through sheet steel like a birthday cake," says John Weeks, picking up his "plasma cutter," one of his many metal-working tools, with both hands. He puts the end of its pistollike barrel against a piece of metal thick enough to be from a car body, and pulls the trigger. A piece of metal the size of a silver dollar falls out.

The machine shop is a large rented room, half the size of a basketball court, in a renovated warehouse in the nondescript industrial neighborhood west of Ashland and south of Chicago Avenue. It is filled with lathes and vises, and the floor is littered with metal scraps and cigarette butts. Weeks has worked there by day for the past eight months.

"The last place was big, cold, and damp. This one is an improvement because it's big, warm, and dry--except if you leave the window open all night, which I guess we did," he says with a shiver.

Weeks is both a furniture maker who makes art and an artist who makes furniture. "I hate the word 'furniture,'" he says. "It makes you think of Montgomery Ward or Sears. But if you start using other names--like 'conceptual home pieces'--people start getting scared."

Weeks and his two fellow artists, Jan Benes and Max Trefonides, are sculptors at heart. Trefonides and Benes make a distinction between their art and their furniture. Weeks does not. In fact, it would be difficult to do so.

Many of his pieces--which include coffee tables, chairs, and screens--can be found in La Movida, an "art furniture" store in the River North gallery district. Slightly disoriented after a glass of wine, the average opening-night gallerygoer entering the shop might think he has wandered into a "pure" sculpture exhibit. Each piece has the quality that makes a viewer stop and admire the careful workmanship, expressive form, and overall visual effect.

His screens stand over six feet tall and have the crafted delicacy and weightlessness of their Japanese rice-paper counterparts. But these screens are made out of steel. One is intricately patterned around the outline of a giant rabbit balancing on its hind legs, sniffing at what might be something edible. "These works are one of a kind," says Brent Isgrig, one of the two owners of La Movida. "There is a certain theatricality, a certain magic quality about them."

A glass coffee table is supported by four short, thick legs that appear to be tree stumps. The ridges and cracks, seemingly acquired from a battle with nature, contradict the dull, impervious steel. Weeks frequently plays with this dichotomy, shaping heavy metals into delicate organic forms. His latest creations are "twig tables," coffee-table frames whose supports are branches that fork into twigs to support the thick glass top. The legs are chemically treated to create a bark-colored corrosion, which is halted and preserved with a special enamel. The tables are both graceful and disturbing in their incongruities.

"I think Chicago is really into metal," Weeks says. "When you think of Chicago, you think of slaughterhouses and steel--heavy industry. It's the material that made Chicago." But it was not this realization that led him to use the material.

He started studying marine biology at the University of North Carolina in 1982, but quickly switched to art and soon was concentrating on sculpture. After three years he transferred to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he finished his BFA. He says he naturally gravitated toward metal. "I love metal--live for metal. I have no use for wood. I know what metal does when welded, what temperature it melts at, what metals will give what curves."

Weeks's inspiration is American artist Walter Ingliss Anderson, who was painting during the first half of this century. Weeks first encountered the artist's work at his own grandparents' house in Mississippi, where they had a few of his prints on display. "Nobody's ever heard of him, though," he says.

According to John Paul Driscoll's book Walter Anderson: Realizations of the Islander, Anderson studied art in France and then spent as much of the last 20 years of his life as possible on deserted Horn Island off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi. He reached the island by rowing his small boat across more than ten miles of open water, with a trash can filled with painting and drawing materials, a sack of groceries, and a blanket. Often he would spend weeks at a time on the island, with only his overturned rowboat for shelter. He died in 1965 at the age of 62.

"He spent 40 years trying to become a citizen of the island. He would paint dead birds that he found after a storm, or twigs and sticks he found on the ground," says Weeks. "They said he went crazy, but I don't think so. He was trying to show himself that he was a part of it all. He was painting to become part of 'nature'--oh, I hate that word."

Using his hand to cover up all but a small corner of an Anderson print titled Grasshoppers in Corn, Weeks shows the influence of Anderson's painting on his own graceful, often weightless organic forms. "Anderson is very abstract, yet very real."

Weeks has supported himself with his "art furniture" for the past year. Before that he supplemented his income with what he calls "fabrications," which involved working with interior designers, architects, or other private contractors who wanted their designs realized in metal.

Although art furniture is becoming popular all over the country and particularly in New York and California, much of it places aesthetics over function. Weeks believes that Chicago's art furniture, particularly his own, has an advantage since--in typically pragmatic Chicago style--function comes first. "If Chicago put its mind to it, it could find its identity as an art-furniture place," he says, "It's the next thing Chicago could call its own."

La Movida is at 301 W. Superior. Hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call the store at 943-6401, or Weeks at 226-1992.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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