East Greenbush sculptor breathes new life into scrap iron and steel

It was just a part-time job that started in high school, but organizing merchandise at Averill Park variety store helped Mary Pat Wager find her way as an artist. Over 40 years later, she still arranges things, mostly thrown iron and steel objects, and turns them into sculptures. The works can be elaborate and imposing or intimate and alluring and they have been exhibited in countless galleries across the region. Currently, Wager is represented in the 2021 Hudson Mohawk Regional at the Albany International Airport Gallery, on view through November 8, and she also has an exhibition at the Clement Frame Shop and Art Gallery in downtown Troy until late. October.

When Wager took on this job as a teenager, it wasn’t to create big Lord & Taylor-style showcases. It was an old-fashioned general store located at a major crossroads in his hometown. She was a cashier and was also responsible for organizing the housewares department of functional items such as can openers and oil lamps. Organizing disparate utility objects in a way that elicits new associations and new ideas is a formula that still works for her.

There were other episodes in Wager’s youth where the method prevailed. Sometime after the death of her maternal grandmother, extended family members took turns visiting the large colonial-style property in West Stephentown to share furniture and heirlooms. First the seven children, then all the grandchildren. By the time young Pat arrived, the most desirable things were long gone. She found a few more treasures: buttons and yarn, a single glove, knitting needles and a few small Christmas decorations.

When Wager made a shadow box from instants in Grandma’s house, her personal memories were preserved and entrenched. In addition, the grouped objects were allowed to receive new life and new meaning from subsequent viewers.

This is how Wager likes his mature sculptures to land on people, equally pleasing to the eye but devoid of a personal narrative. “Any material I can get my hands on has some meaning to me. But I’m going for a satisfying aesthetic and that’s all I provide to the viewer, ”she says.

As a high school art student, Wager continued to attach objects to her canvases. When she enrolled at the University of Albany, she still imagined herself to be a painter. But after taking her first soldering lesson, she turned to sculpture. “That was it,” she recalls. “I could defy gravity.”

Around the same time and returning to the Averill Park variety store, Wager made another important discovery, her future husband. The couple raised two children, Daniel and Jessica, who are now adults and have remained in the area.

While the kids were going up, Wager always took time to work in the studio and she also helped support the family by teaching. She has held positions at Russell Sage College (when it was known as Junior College of Albany), College of St. Rose, and the Albany Academy for Girls. Her longest tenure was 27 years in the Averill Park Central School District, where she retired in 2015.

Artist Mary Pat Wager works on one of her pieces in her studio on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NY
Artist Mary Pat Wager works on one of her pieces in her studio on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NYPaul Buckowski / Times Union

Sixteen years ago, the couple designed and built a home on a secluded, wooded 30-acre lot in East Greenbush. Just up a small hill from the main house is Wager’s studio, a single bedroom with 2,250 square feet of floor space and a 12 foot high ceiling. Like a contemporary art museum, the walls are crisp white and the floors immaculate concrete. The predominant color, however, is brown, due to the rusty patina of the thousands of items Wager has acquired over the course of a lifetime, from key chains to gas tanks. These are the building blocks of his earthy designs.

“I forgot all the sources. I once tried to fix it this way but gave up. You can pick up a piece but you forget where it came from. It all gets mixed up, ”says Wager.

The collection started very early when the family lived in a house adjacent to a steel mill. The property was once part of the mill factory and they kept finding interesting bits of metal on the ground. Wager saw possibilities for sculpture and inquired about getting more.

“I got permission to buy tons of this freeform steel. Tons – it’s so heavy! said Pari. “The owner gave me a weekend to choose what we wanted. I had a whole inventory of wonderful, unusual frozen steel shapes that look organic. I continue to tap into this supply.

If Wager had a model for this kind of collection and reuse, it would be his sculpture professor at UAlbany, the late Richard Stankiewicz. “He was well known at the time and was the father of junk sculpture. It would just go to the dumps, ”she said.

Wager has her own payback routines, as she explains, “I love real estate sales on the last day when what’s left is what nobody wants. I am looking for farms with old equipment like cutter bars, seeders and old wheels. They often allow me to come in and take whatever I want.

But she never stooped to visiting a landfill. She has friends for that. “I knew a person who worked in a dump,” she recalls. “He brought me a load of steel every week for $ 40.”

In addition to metals, certain industrial wood parts and antique furniture sometimes do the trick. Some polished stones are also attractive. They can be placed high up in metal constructions, all of which are part of Wager’s “gravity defiant”. What is avoided are all plastics, most glass, and anything that has bright colors or a recent vintage.

The bet usually has a number of coins going at any given time. His completed works are grouped into series, often by theme. Some series are in progress, others finished. One series that she hopes to come to an end concerns Covid.

Artist Mary Pat Wager works on one of her pieces in her studio on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NY
Artist Mary Pat Wager works on one of her pieces in her studio on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NYPaul Buckowski / Times Union

“For months there were no residences, no shows, no meetings and all the work had a Covid tendency,” Wager calls. Among the pieces is “Time Line”, consisting of a length of barbed wire with watches hanging from it. Also, “Lights Out” which has a photo of a woman in a graceful round frame paired with a thermometer. Wager also mentions the one titled “Infection” but refuses to describe it, saying only that “it’s hard to watch”.

Such an explicit editing of materials is rare for Wager, whose more typical creations are fanciful and invite dialogue and broad speculation. During his long career, the artist seems to have heard every imaginable interpretation of his work. While making the tour of her workshop and her park, she quietly gives in to a journalist who, caught up in the charm, claims to see in one of these small steel spots the silhouette of a rodeo cowboy riding bareback, and which gleefully refers to a series of large outdoor sculptures like “these lollipops”.

“What the viewer finds or sees is totally beyond my control,” says Wager.

Glancing over the vast array of materials in his studio, one can’t help but wonder what Wager will come up with next. She’s probably also curious about it. “My goal is to use all the equipment,” says Wager. “That’s my goal.”

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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