A New Creative Force in an Old Garage: Sculptor's works "are really alive"

Monday, November 7, 1994
Philadelphia Inquirer

The 2100 block of Darby Road looks ordinary enough, with ordinary enough things, such as a hair salon and a music store, and a sign across a hulking gray stone building that says: "Oakmont Fire Company No. 1, 1919."

But beyond the facade lies an extraordinary netherworld, sprung to life
from the demons in Christopher Cairns' mind.

On warm days - when the solid outer power door is lifted - black iron bars are all that separate the sidewalk from twisted people captured in plaster and bronze in a state of eternal silence.

Or so it would seem, except Cairns likes to perform surgery on his fair friends, often giving them leg and head transplants and changing their stances on a whim.

And his new studio - formerly part of the Oakmont Fire Company and then a maintenance shop for Haverford school buses - is the perfect place to do it, the sculptor said.

"It's kind of an interesting idea to get it to move, 'cause sculptures are really alive," Cairns, 51, said as he explained how he had changed the position of a sculpture called The Raising of Lazarus from horizontal to vertical.

"They've got their own world. That's one of the nice things about being an artist is you can make your own world," he said. "That's what I like about this place is you can do what you want, as long as you know what you want to do."

When the school district put the studio up for sale, the Haverford College art professor offered the highest price of eight bidders, at $225,000, said school district Business Manager Bill Glancey. Cairns spent a year cleaning, scrubbing, painting, replacing partitions, adding skylights, and hiring contractors to install heating and electrical systems.

But the remnants of the bus garage remain.

He stores his rubber molds on an old tire rack. An orange "School Bus" sign hangs on a beam above the front room, where his finished pieces stand, sit and lie in suspended trance. In the room to the far rear, a new wall closes off a former garage opening where buses used to exit, but a lonely motor that operated the old door remains without anything to operate.

"I kind of have a reminder of what this place was then," Cairns said. ''They sort of outgrew this place. It was a very different, completely different place. When I first came in here, I noticed if it had skylights, it would be an unbelievably beautiful place."

Children passing by on bicycles stop and stare and point through the bars, made by a local ironmaker. Former bus workers come by to reminisce about their old work space.

"Most of the guys who came in here who've worked here before, they tell me this is where they did this, and this was so-and-so's tire rack," Cairns said.

Save the time he cleaned the oil off his floors with steel balls that sounded like an air-raid siren, Cairns has been a less intrusive neighbor than the previous tenant, he said.

"There was a lot of traffic on this street with the buses. But I ride my bike here. Kevin rides his bike up here," Cairns said. "We're pretty low-key guys, right, Kevin?"

Cairns was talking to his friend and fellow artist, Kevin Tuttle. Tuttle, who also has taught art at Haverford College, uses one of the studios in the back of the building. Last week, Tuttle was preparing for an exhibit that opened Friday at Haverford College.

Another artist who works in the building is one of Cairns' former students, now an emergency room doctor at the University of Pennsylvania whom Cairns refers to as a "doc."

Sharing the space with friends makes the artistic process a bit less lonely, Cairns said. Evidence of the artists' long, sleepy hours comes in the form of Dunkin' Donuts coffee cups that litter their studios, such as the one that shares a shelf with a few of Cairns' large heads. On Tuttle's old cream sofa, a plaster head mixes with a red Phillies cap and a blue hat sporting the name of their favorite local spot, Hanne's Breakfast Nook.

Cairns describes his work as "semi-realistic human figures," many of which have his long and lanky appearance. One of these figure last week still needed a hand, which the sculptor removed from its rubber mold with the ease of a grocer handling produce. He stuck it onto the arm of the lunging plaster man and stood back to admire the result.

"He's actually a dead friend of mine coming up, uh, just sort of floating across the landscape," Cairns said, pondering an explanation of his work. He finally decided: "He's coming back."

Cairns laughed and moved on to another project, The Angry Gardener, which takes the form of a man twisting his body around and carrying a big stick, backed by an imposing but crumbling white wall.

"Besides holding his stick for beating people, he's going to have a bag with body parts," Cairns said.

The idea for the man came from a real person Cairns saw walking near his College Avenue home, turning fast with a stick in his hand. On the wall will be shards of glass, like those that topped the du Pont estate walls near Cairns' boyhood home in Wilmington.

"On the ground here is going to be a guy kind of ripped up. I don't know what it's about," Cairns said, and laughed modestly. "It's sort of an allegorical story of modern times."

Until he went to college, Cairns had never even been in a museum. He began sculpting in 1964, and now he spends his days creating and recreating people in his Darby Road studio and another one at Haverford College.

"I got a number of doctor friends. I tell them, 'You guys, you operate twice a week. I operate every day. My specialty,' I tell them, 'is limb removal, decapitation, and chest surgery.' "