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They Take to the Woods:

Barney Bellinger’s Welded Steel Sculptures at the Wild Center

They Take to the Woods: July 7, 2021
Barney Bellinger at The Wild Center. Photo by Stanley Rumbough.

From an ecologist’s perspective, there is nothing especially extraordinary about this patch of woods at the edge of The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.

“A sixty-year-old succession forest, dominated by scotch pines at the end of their life span, soon to be replaced by the hardwood understory,” as Wild Center executive director Stephanie Ratcliff describes it, accurately enough. 

But under the influence – the spell, really – of Barney Bellinger,  the self-taught, shape-shifting artist from the southern Adirondacks, this unexceptional copse has been transformed into an enchanted woodland, populated by the mythical beasts of his imagination.

“To see these incredible, large-scale metal sculptures in this environment is an amazing experience,” said Hillarie Logan-Dechene, Deputy Director of The Wild Center. “It’s an exhibition that totally exceeds our expectations, which were very high to begin with.”

Welded Steel: Shape, Form and Light,  consists of 17 sculptures in conversation with the surrounding environment, with the Wild Center’s Greenleaf Pond and feracious wild gardens, as well as with this forest remnant.  

“I haven’t achieved perfection, but that was never my intention,” said Bellinger. “It’s okay to just be an artist, working through things. Not having been to art school, I can only speculate, but I can’t help but wonder if those were trained there feel they have to work within these rigid guidelines. Me, I’m all over the map. That’s the way I work.”

Until recently, Bellinger was best known as a rustic artist, crafting whimsically baroque furniture (often featuring his detailed paintings of wildlife and Adirondack landscapes) from materials scavenged from wetlands and forest floors.

Living near Gloversville, a manufacturing city in decline near the Mohawk River, he also had access to industrial detritus, which he began combining with his wood work to create modernist “sculptural furniture.”

A friend from Bolton Landing, Henry Caldwell, introduced him to the work of David Smith, the great mid-century American sculptor who happened to live in Bolton. 

“I’m not influenced by other artists with the exception of David Smith, who is my biggest inspiration,” said Bellinger. “I told his daughter, the artist Rebecca Smith, ‘I really feel this connection with your father,’ and her response was, ‘Barney, I’ve followed your work, and while my dad may have inspired you, there’s a thread of your own that travels through your furniture, your paintings and your sculpture that makes it distinctive.’ I thought that was a good observation.”

Just as Bellinger shaped nature’s creations into furniture, frames, lamps and decorative pieces, he now takes the raw fragments of  old machinery, automotive parts and architectural steel and welds these into new and unexpected combinations.  

“That kind of reuse of materials to come up with these beautiful sculptural creations is totally consistent with our philosophy of  sustainability,” said Logan-Dechene. 

The pieces from “ Welded Steel: Shape, Form and Light” that have been situated in the woods are deloyed along the Forest Music trail, originally created in 2017 for iForest, the sonic istallation by British composer Pete M. Wyer. 

Wyer’s installation has been replaced by another immersive sonic sculpture, this one by Eric Sturr, whose new album, “Iron Harvest,” draws inspiration from Bellinger’s work. 

Sturr’s  installation, which mixes metallic sounds and instruments with natural sounding harmonies of marimba and violins, is broadcast through 24 camoflaged speakers.

“Ornithologists have assured us that the music has no impact on the birds. Nor does it bother other wildlife. We saw a deer crouched near the hut that houses the electronic equipment,” said Stephanie Ratcliffe. “The Forest Music trail has a light footprint.”

As the seasons change,  the visual relationship between the sculptures and the landscape and their effect upon one another will also change.

“What’s going to be so much fun is seeing this exhibit in every season – fall will be stunning, winter unbelievable,” said Logan-Dechene.

“ Welded Steel: Shape, Form and Light” is complemented by a retrospective exhibit and sale of Bellinger’s work at Tupper Arts Center. “Barney Bellinger: Rustic to Moderne,” which includes examples of his rustic furniture, paintings, and lighting fixtures, is on view through September 15.  The Tupper Arts Center located at 106 Park Street in Tupper Lake.

Visitors can experience Welded Steel: Shape, Form and Light” seven days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. For more information, visit The Wild Center’s website at wildcenter.org.