“It all came out of these two fascinations of mine, one with fire and the other with rust,” reflects artist Alice Bain Martin.
Fire and rust. No, it’s not a James Taylor song — it’s Martin’s new exhibit. The untitled show is a strangely colorful study of the spectrum of textural interaction between human emotion and scrap metal, when driveway salt is added at 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“What I did here was patina,” Martin explains.
By adding colorless chemicals, “The metal itself supplies some of what’s going on … in terms of color or designs,” she says. “You get the most incredible patterns.”
Martin’s artistic heart reveals itself through her chemist’s mind. Junkyard iron slathered with polyurethane and Miracle-Gro is fertile ground for turquoise and cobalt blue Florentine patterns of fractured crystalline surrealism. And Sprite (yes, the soft drink) heated on copper to molten-lava temperatures becomes a rainbow of exquisite expression.
“I was drinking Sprite and thought, ‘Hell, let’s see what this does,’ so I poured it on,” she remembers. As for beer … well, artists in this medium would be prudent to take a Breathalyzer test before entering the studio. But Martin doesn’t need to be tipsy to have an incendiary evening. “I set fire to myself all the time,” she states matter-of-factly. “When you’re cutting and welding, it’s hard to see out of the face mask. … The first time it happened, it was just like in the cartoons: ‘Sniff-sniff-sniff … what’s that I smell burning? Oh, it’s me!‘ I’m used to it now; the last time, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m on fire again … whatever.'”
Her nature, it seems, is to go with the flow.
“That’s sort of how my life is,” she says. “If I try and plan stuff out, it never works. If I don’t think about it and let it happen in a real Zen sort of way, it works out.”
Born in the Bahamas, adopted by a Bahamian mother and British father, Alice Bain Martin had the complicated distinction of being a child without a country. “I have a history of falling through the cracks,” she points out. “Nobody would claim me. The Bahamians disavowed me. The British didn’t want to take me. I had no nationality.”
When she was 10 years old, her parents hired a lawyer who convinced the British consulate to accept her. Then the Bahamian government said, “We’ll take her!” and her passport simply arrived in the mail. “[Suddenly] I’m a dual citizen,” she states incredulously. “I went from nothing to both! Well, what the heck?”
No stranger to borders, then, Martin explains, “Rust is the boundary between two states. New metal is boring. Completely rusted metal is boring. But partially rusted metal is [visually] fascinating, and the way you rust it changes the way it looks and behaves.”
“I like to work with metal because if you drop metal, if you’ve welded it right, it bounces,” Martin explains. “If you drop any other type of art, you’re gonna f••k it up somehow. Metal’s more of a solid thing, and I’m more of a klutz.”
She has another ulterior motive, too:
“If you work with metal, you get to work with fire,” she enthuses. “You get to work with really hot, dangerous stuff. I was the kid who set the kitchen on fire boiling wax on the stove.”
Asked to describe her exhibit, Martin scratches her head and laughs. “Obscurity is the better part of discretion,” she muses.
“People want mystery. You interpret [the exhibit], to a certain extent, the way you want to; you project into it, and it becomes more a part of you.”
Ambiguity, Martin believes, is an integral part of some of our greatest art. “It’s there enough to grab you [her pieces could, in fact, stop a getaway car going 110 mph down the interstate], but it’s obscure enough that you can [project] yourself onto it.”
Oh, and one more thing: Martin’s art can be hazardous to your health. “This is serious art; it can cut you. I’ve impaled myself on pieces,” she says with a grin.