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Local sculptor inspired by county’s natural beauty
Ellijay sculptor Eric Strauss displays the gate he recently completed for Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground. Decorated with metal roses and irises, the gate contains over 550 hand-forged pieces. (Contributed photo)
by Whitney Crouch
Finding an opportunity is sometimes likened to opening a new door, and in the case of Ellijay resident Eric Strauss, this idea played out in a literal sense.
It all started when he decided to take a photography class at Georgia Southern University in the 1980s. While he enjoyed capturing still images, his curiosity led him to discover an even greater passion.
“The sculpture class was across the hall (from the photography room) and its door was always closed (to keep down the dust),” he recalled. “I opened the door one day and saw the most wonderful mess — tools and clay and junk.”
He was immediately hooked.
In the fall he took a beginning sculpture class and by spring he had changed his major from business to fine arts with a focus on foundry and ceramics.
“I went from doing horrible in (the business) school to making the Dean’s List the last two years,” he remembered. “I had a key to the building and worked (on my art) late at night while most students were out partying.”
Living his passion
Today, 27 years after graduating college he still loves being a full-time sculptor.
“Some people have that inner need to create,” he mused. “I don’t know, but ever since I was a little kid, it’s been hard for me to put it down. It’s part of me.”
“This is my world,” he continued, gesturing to the art studio beside his house where he can be found in both 20-degree weather and in the dripping heat of summer.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture “The Thinker,” Strauss moved energetically as he gave a tour of the hilltop workshop where he works solo and pointed out the various tools he uses in his trade in order to bend, form, grind, weld and apply texture to different lengths of steel.
He changes his equipment around the studio to fit the project he’s working on at the time. Some, like a 15-foot mascot sculpture for Murray County High School, require quite a bit of space and force him to use pulleys and stand on tables to apply the finishing touches.
When asked why he chooses to tackle sculptures that reach to such heights, he observed, “10 feet looks big until you put it next to a building or tree.”
Strauss has also crafted a wide array of other items, including custom fireplace screens and pool gates, as well as commissioned pieces, such as memorial walls for a temple in Atlanta.
Over the years, he has been featured in gallery shows in several states, including Michigan, Arizona and Florida, as well as in a traveling exhibit through the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville in 2006 and 2007.
He has also donated work to a variety of charity events for causes ranging from hippotherapy to teenage drug addiction.
Finding inspiration in nature
One of his most recent projects was constructing a forged steel gate adorned with roses and irises for Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground. The intricate piece contained over 550 hand-forged pieces.
“When I came back from (installing the gate and seeing) the garden, I was on fire with creativity,” he noted.
Indeed, the natural world has long influenced his work. Many of his early pieces were in what he described as his “earth, moon, sun series.”
“When I was a little kid, I went to Maine for camp. When I started doing art, all those early experiences of being in the mountains came (back) to me,” he said as he described what led him to embrace a natural theme for his art.
He has also completed a series of monumental horses based on his memories of living on a horse farm.
“The first ones were real primitive,” he laughed, “real fat and out of shape.”
As he continued to develop the form, the pieces caught the eye of the art community, and Sir Elton John purchased one of the horses, which was made of antique farm parts.
Later, Strauss gleaned inspiration from trips to the western United States where he fell in love with Native American designs and had success with his work in galleries in Santa Fe.
“I love New Mexico. It’s so inspirational,” he shared, adding he almost moved there but changed his mind after considering the drought conditions, high living expenses and large number of competing artists in the region.
Instead he and his wife moved to an abandoned blueberry farm in Ellijay.
“People thought I was nuts,” he stated, recalling how many of his friends reacted to his desire to move to a small town and create “high art in the mountains.”
After 16 years in Gilmer County, he feels he made the right choice.
Describing himself as “a southeastern artist who has a southwestern flair,” he enjoys living in the north Georgia mountains and frequently finds inspiration from the mountain laurels, dogwoods and oak trees just outside his studio doors.
Since he particularly enjoys forging leaves and flowers, Strauss sometimes collects natural specimens from his yard and works to recreate them using his blacksmithing tools.
Explaining the various steps involved in making even the smallest metal leaf, acorn or petal, he stated, “I focus on hard detail to make it realistic … it’s a lot of meticulous work. People don’t realize there’s so much handwork in each piece.”
“Blacksmithing is like your thumbprint,” he continued. “Everyone hits a little differently as far as angles and hardness … a lot of (blacksmiths) will buy prefabricated components, but (what I make) is truly handmade, hand forged and truly one of a kind … (each component is) like a little part of my soul. Until I’m satisfied with the piece, it’s not ready. I’m not trying to crank work out.”
While blacksmithing has consumed most of his attention and effort of late, it’s a rather new art form for Strauss.
“I did (contemporary stainless work) for years and have slowly graduated into forging,” he stated, explaining he is not a trained blacksmith. “Every piece (I make) is an adventure because no one ever showed me how to do it.”
When he first began dabbling in blacksmithing, the only equipment he had was a hammer and an anvil stamped with the year 1895. Since then, he’s been focusing on building his arsenal of tools so he can tackle more large-scale and in-depth projects.
Hazards of the trade
Although his work is fulfilling, pursuing art as a career has had some drawbacks.
“They don’t call them starving artists for nothing,” he laughed, adding “sculpture is one of the hardest art forms to make a living at … but the commission stuff pays for my art habit.”
Strauss went on to describe creating his art as a “real physical” process and compared working in the forge with metal so hot “it will burn you to the bone” to running a chainsaw.
“It’s a little intimidating,” he explained, “but as long as you treat it with respect and caution and don’t get cocky (you’ll be fine).”
Even with a cautious attitude, however, he’s had his share of work-related injuries.
“I just turned 50. After almost 30 years of doing this, I feel it,” he noted, recalling some of the burns, cuts and smashed fingers he’s received over the years while pursuing his passion.
“I’ve slow-cooked my thumb before,” he remembered. “I’ve had golfer’s elbow (as a result of my work and there were times) I couldn’t sleep because my feet and hands were hurting so bad.”
In spite of these hazards, he does not regret his decision to pursue art full-time.
“(Working from home) freed me up to spend a lot of time with (my kids),” he explained. “I was Mr. Mom.”
“I have a passion for it,” he concluded, adding he would enjoy setting up a blacksmith school one day in order to share his love of the art form with others.
to see more photos of his work.
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