"Star Reacher" bonus story!
Sculptor Bastian Koeller is Hematite's "Star Reacher"
by Elsa Walter
The Newcity Daily Dispatch
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The city of Hematite exists mostly to provide living quarters for tens of thousands of iron industry workers. Here in the heart of its light industrial sector, metal fabrication plants line one side of a street; they produce pipes, sinks, and fuel tanks. The other side of the street is all warehouses and storage hangars.
It's about as far as you can get from the hip, fashionable, artist-magnet environment of Newcity's university district--but appearances can be deceiving. One of these storage hangars has served as Bastian Koeller's sculpture studio for the past several years; rent is affordable and there's no shortage of space in this area. It's a mild summer day, forty-five degrees, and the large rollup doors are open to admit the sunlight, which glints off the objects inside, and paints broad strips of light on the concrete floor.
Koeller waves me inside with a grin. He's in his early thirties, blond, scruffy, a heavy smoker with a voice that sounds like it originates from the bottom of a gravel pit. His forearms bear faded, homemade-looking tattoos: crossed wrenches, planetary gears, a liquor bottle with the stereotypical "XXX" label. He points at the half-dozen fantastical sheet metal creations that lie in elegant disarray against one wall, like oversized jacks tossed by giant children. "Those are my tetrapods," he says. "It's a phase I went through."
A workbench supports the long, curving shape of a piece in progress. Tables hold rollers, punches, metal cutters, a grinder, a polisher, other machines I don't even recognize. There's a wall full of tools and a cluster of gas tanks for welding. There's even an overhead mini crane system. One corner is a graveyard piled haphazardly with metal scraps of all shapes and sizes.
At the back of the shop, another rollup door opens on a spacious yard where there are more sculptures on display. Some are stocky, geometric figures; others are slim, graceful crescents and bends. The largest one is a hybrid species. From a thick base of agglomerated geometric shapes, two slender arms branch away. One plunges to take root in the ground; the other arcs up towards the sky.
Newcity Daily Dispatch: When did you become an artist?
Bastian Koeller: That's a good question... Back when I was a teenager, I worked at a fuel station near Landfall. I used to scrounge the junkyard, and I would put aside anything I saw that I liked... engine parts, fuel tanks, exhaust pipes, you name it. And then one day I decided I'd put 'em together and make shit. These ideas would keep me awake at night... machines that had no purpose, animals that never existed. I had no idea what I was doing. Just knew I had to make 'em, or else.
It wasn't until later, when my ex, Trudi--well, she used to look at my sketchbooks all the time. Used to look at my photos of the stuff I'd made back at the fuel station. And then one day she went, "Hey, you dumbass, this is art." And I was like, "Huh?" It wasn't too long after that, I built my first big sheet metal sculpture for an art show... (laughs) Yeah, it was her that gave me that kick in the ass. And that was when I started taking myself seriously. I worked on that thing for four days without sleep... I was completely insane by the end of it.
NDD: So you're self-taught?
BK: Yeah... I never knew you could go to school for art. I went to the diesel and heavy equipment program at Newcity Tech... y'know, what the aeronautics students call "Oldcity Tech". I've been working at the Stellar Mine for more than ten years. It's a good job. I owe Jochim--my partner--for that. If he hadn't bugged me to go to school, I'd still be working at that fuel station right now.
NDD: Is it your goal to eventually be able to make a living as an artist?
BK: Nah. It'd be real, real hard to make a living this way. One, I can make a lot more money as a heavy equipment mechanic. Two, you know what a small place Diamanta is... there's not enough demand for what I do. There aren't that many places to exhibit my work, or enough people that want to buy it.
Although I did sell a piece to an offworlder not too long ago. Jochim keeps telling me I need to get more foreigners interested, 'cause they're the ones with the money to spend. He says I ought to get Yamada Mining to commission me to make something for their corp HQ. So who knows? Come back and talk to me in another couple years, and maybe I'll be singing a different song.
NDD: What materials do you use, and where do you get them?
BK: Steel sheet (metal) is my favorite material to use. I use a lot of rods and tubes, too. I used steel rebar for one piece. Dabbled with other metals: aluminum, copper, titanium. Getting materials is easy around here; I just call up a supplier and have 'em deliver it. I also use found metal objects from salvage yards, and sometimes dead parts from the scrap heap at work. That, and random stuff I find on the street.
NDD: Where do you get your inspiration from?
BK: From nature--and from the things people do to try and control nature. Everything's temporary. Sink pilings for a bridge, or put in electric poles, and frost heave'll shove 'em up again. Build a paved road, and it'll get crumpled up in the freeze-and-thaw, like corrugated cardboard. Dig a hole in the ground and it'll fill up with water. For a while I got real interested in tetrapods and A-jacks--those are the concrete things they use on riverbanks, so the spring melt doesn't scour 'em out. I started making my own out of sheet metal, only they had different shapes and extra legs.
Cities inspire me too--everything's prefab concrete blocks and right angles. We're always trying to put nature in a box. When I was a kid I was fascinated by utilidors*. When I looked at them, I saw right-angle, straight-line animals--no head and all legs. And houses with the stilts to keep 'em up off the frozen ground, I liked those too. How they always seemed like they were about to get up and walk away.
Working in the iron mining industry gives me lots of ideas too. The open pits fascinate me, how they're a bunch of shapes that all have the same center. At Stellar, the benches are fifty foot high. It's like a giant staircase to the core of the earth. Most of the machines I work on are real big--diggers, cats**, loaders, trucks. Just an engine can weigh thousands of pounds. Maybe that's why I'm obsessed with gravity and things that are heavy.
NDD: Was that the inspiration for your sculpture entitled "Iron Man"?
BK: Actually, that one was inspired by Jochim. About a year and half ago, he had surgery on his back. They fastened his spine together with screws and rods. Yeah... he was a mess. One, when they do that, it takes forever for it to heal. Two, he had to wear a body brace so he couldn't move around too much, otherwise it wouldn't heal right. Three, if you don't move around enough, you lose all your muscle. He's over six feet tall and he weighed practically nothing. Wasn't allowed to work, wasn't allowed to do shit. But it all went right in the end, 'cause now he's real strong, super solid. That's why I called him "Iron Man". Although that hardware in his back is really titanium.
Anyway, looking at the X-ray, it got me thinking. I decided to make a bigger version of his hardware--out of titanium. The interesting thing about titanium, you can give it colors, by anodization. That's where you use electricity to build up a coating on the metal. So I made my hardware a deep blue color. Then I built a big frame out of bent rebar, lashed it together with wire, and hung the hardware in the middle.
NDD: Did he like it?
BK: Well... I bought a rebar bender for that project. And he was like, "You bought what? You spent how much?" That's Jochim for you. (laughs) But yeah... he did like it. 'Specially when I told him that I usually don't make pieces that are about one specific person.
NDD: How long does it usually take to finish a piece?
BK: It takes fuckin' forever. One, I work full-time in the diesel repair shop at Stellar, so I only do sculptures after-hours or on my days off. Two, most of my pieces are big. Three, I can only pull so many all-nighters. Gotta save some time for Jochim... 'cause if I don't, he'll give me hell. (laughs)
NDD: What is your favorite sculpture that you've made, and what does it mean to you?
BK: You're standing under it. This one's called "Star Reacher". Remember I said I had an obsession with gravity? Trudi, my ex, had moved offplanet, to Rubina. I was all set to follow her; I had bought an orbital shuttle ticket and everything. Meanwhile, I was building nothing but these big, heavy, low-to-the-ground pieces... until I finally realized: why am I weighing myself down like this? It's 'cause I don't want to leave!
So I stopped working on the tetrapod I was working on, and I made this instead. The arms are parabolas. That's the path a rock takes when you throw it, before it falls back down to earth, 'cause of gravity. As for what it means... the best thing about sculpture is getting an idea in my mind, and then making that idea really exist right in front of me. "Star Reacher" is... a picture. Of a decision I made. Which was this: I need the sky, but I also need the ground.
NDD: Where can people see your work?
BK: "Iron Man" is at the Denison Gallery in Newcity, along with two other pieces. "A-Jack" is at the art department at NU. The rest of my stuff is here at my studio. People are welcome to come by and look. Just tell 'em to give a call first.
Oh, and I almost forgot--"Parallax" must be somewhere on Pearlene by now. Just think of that... my art going off to another planet.
* Above-ground conduits for water, electrical, and sewage lines, used in areas where permafrost prevents the lines from being buried.
** Slang for bulldozer.