While her classmates were still gluing macaroni to paper plates, little Sarah Perry was waist-deep in bones and bird feathers, constructing incredible assemblages from bugs, frogs, lizard skins, all the "icky" things that her two older brothers collected as objets d'art.
Soon her aesthetic caused her conservative Southern parents--—now raising their children in Long Island--— to feel no end of concern. "My parents thought that I had gone too far," admits Perry, "getting into bones and things. My parents would say, 'Sary' Don' bring home thet stuff, yo gonna git duzeezed!' But I swayed them over because I'd make things... that they liked—-my father more than my mother. She couldn't quite understand. I was supposed to be a debutante. She got all this instead." The sculptress rolls her eyes at "all this:" the cicada-skin chandelier; the wall-mounted bird wings; the rubber hydra stapled to the kitchen doorway. Perry's home is the eerie equivalent of a roadside, "last-stop" desert museum/gas station. Everywhere shelves are packed with cocktail trays of tarantula knees, undiscovered trilobites, turtle skulls, snakeskins, and horse shins.
Not always so viscerally intense, Perry did try other art forms. "I remember, in elementary school, my mom giving me coloring books, but I didn't like them," she says. The lines were already there. I wanted blank paper." In high school she began drawing portraits of her friends, more for them than for herself. The emotional rewards she reaped from her friends' sincere (if not vain) approval kept Perry drawing busily. But her early attempts at formal sculpture were less well received: "I did do some small, figurative sculptures while I was in high school," she explains, "but they were not well received. They were nudes. Only Michelangelo could do nudes."
Eventually the artist, now in her twenties, found her way to the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. With renewed, sprightly vigor, she sloughed off the stultifying skins of other people's ideas. Perry was now free to dig deeper into her fertile past and find again the self-actualization that sculpture had brought her earlier.
At Otis, Perry's childhood penchant for found objects melded with new techniques, new media, and new ideas. Her interest in cast-offs eventually expanded to include those of man, not just those of nature, and to contrast the two themes she built two nests in the Otis gallery. On ten-foot-square scaffolding, high in the uppermost part of the large space, she constructed a nest from palm fronds (nearly bushes), leaves, vines, flowers, all things natural. Below that she made a "junk" nest of tons of movie film, rug parts, road signs, spent polaroids, roadside markers, Do Not Enter signs, witches hats, crushed cans, and so on. "The aroma from the top nesr," she recalls, "was wonderful. Secretaries from across the street came to eat lunch in the nest," she brags. "I lived in the top nest for almost two weeks. The edge rose to rhree-and-one-half feet, in fact. You actually had to climb into it, as if it were a giant dish. It could seat twelve comfortably."
Next she discovered the truck-tire "cemeteries" that line every city. To her, forgotten tires are cultural artifacts, as evocative as any flint arrowhead. Thus, she was doubly bent on collecting them. "I'd see these hulking rubber things on the side of the road," muses Perry, "and I'd think, 'God! This is going to haunt man one day. All this trash, all this waste is going to come back and get him for not being conscious enough to see the world as a whole.' And I pictured this beast/man...coalescing out of all man's cast-off things.. .running down the highway in the wee hours of the night, when no one was around."
Welcoming the risks, laughing at the skeptics. Perry tackled her beast/ man. Diverting the security officers with distilled bribes, she stole into Otis's sculpture lab after hours and taught herself to weld. Studying the forms and gestures of real primates, she painstakingly manipulated simian armatures from discarded steel rods, while simulating an ape's authentic musculature with layers of old tires. The results became the first members of Perry's fantastical family: Route 5 Gorilla, Route 14 Gorilla, and Route 15 Gorilla.
Perry's exhausting labors required much time, much pain, and great pride of purpose, and every bit of her vision comes through in the perfect communion of form and medium. We see big, steely monsters made from big steely radials. An imposing sense of danger—industrial and primordial— emanates from the zigzag gouges in their tough, ugly hides. A chilling fury lashes out from the shadows of their tread-furrowed brows, as they seem to lumber along the vengeance trail, seeking retribution for man's wasteful exploitations.
In truth, some small children have run crying from these hulking brutes, but others want to romp and play on the big, bouncy buffoons. Offsetting the creatures' historic ferocity we see their comic awkwardness. The irony that these surly denizens of the steamy jungle have been made from urban garbage brings a wry chuckle even to the staunchest environmentalist. This combination of humor with horror is intended, imbuing Perry's animals with an entertaining animism that exaggerates the dark exterior. The horror does not become too oppressive or the humor too subtle; one doesn't need a degree in fine art to relate to Perry's work on its intended human, intuitive level.
Perry's neighbors respond positively to her work, which is convenient, since she prepares and stores most of her major pieces in her yard. At any given time, her backyard is heaped and hung with several safaris' worth of blown big-rig skins. In front of the house sits Perry's tour de force, a ten-foot bust of Medusa, fashioned in the artist's likeness. Grim and potentially explosive, this rebar-and-rubber "lawn jockey from hell" is the result of a two-year slump that followed the gorilla pieces.
From 1985 to 1987, Perry underwent an emotionally taxing time and produced no major works. Afterward, she sought an icon that portrayed the perseverance and strength that she had developed. Recalling the mythic clash of Perseus and the Gorgon, she appropriately chose the head of Medusa, who was fabled to have writhed with arcane power even after decapitation. With a storm of electric serpentine hair framing the stoic, androgynous face. Perry's volcanic Medusa evolved as a powerful self-portrait and a testament to invincibility achieved through adversity.
The striated face of Medusa also testifies to the sculptress's keen technical talent. Discovering the pocked, reptilian patterns of tire linings, Perry turned them inside out, laying swatch over swatch to mimic real facial musculature. A full ton of rubber and steel formed the demoness, who was constructed with exacting effort. Even the muscles of the eyelids were replicated. The textures of the crafted tire strips became lines of direction that delineated the form; despite the crudeness of her medium, the grace of Perry's technique dominates. As in the case of the gorillas, Medusa's lighter side contrasts with her darkness. Taking a Goodyear emblem and shearing off the letters G-O-O-D-Y. Perry formed Medusa's ear from the remaining E-A-R, adding a little Pop humor to lighten the mood.
Not all of Perry's works require a crane to move them. When embarking on a new project, she stares a simultaneous series of smaller assemblages that she can "play" with when the toil and the ideas of the big works begin to dominate her life. During the cathartic Medusa period, for example, Perry welded a series of small steel hearts. Railroad Spike Heart, constructed as the title would imply, is a comment on the cliche "Love is as tough as nails." Axed Heart, with its heart-shaped metal cage growing around an ax head, conveys the notion of emotional catastrophe and the healing that follows.
Currently, Perry is cruising for tire pelts to clothe her next series, Alligators. "The material is so ungodly perfect," she laughs. "Getting the material can be a problem, though. Stopping on the freeway is illegal, technically, so there I am, filthy, dragging this huge "pelt" on the freeway, and a policeman pulls up. So I always bring photos of the apes with me to prove that I'm not out of my mind, and that I actually make things from tires."
Fully exploring the ragged, exploded qualities of the rubber relics, the sculptress hopes to complete Alligators by next year. After the impossibly heavy gorillas and Medusa, however, Sarah Perry has already committed herself to a major design revision. "I've learned," she says. "I'm making the alligators with wheels!""