HELENA — For a clay sculptor, Anton Alvarez seems to have a lot of industrial-looking metal in his studio at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena.
In fact, the assortment of metal is the first thing you notice when you enter the room. And it is dominated by a 15-foot-tall machine that looks like it belongs on a factory floor rather than an artist’s chamber.
That machine is why Alvarez, a half-Swedish, half-Chilean artist raised in both countries, is here in Helena, making sculptures that are very different from what most people would think of when they hear “pottery.”
“I built and brought it from Sweden,” Alvarez said of the monstrous machine, called an extruder, during an interview in his studio in mid-May. Wearing Mizuno running shoes and rolled-up black jeans with a bright orange shirt tucked into them, he could be the cabinet-maker he originally trained to be, except for the clay dust flecking his clothes.
Alvarez, who went to school at Sweden’s Konstfack and got his master's degree from the London Royal College of Art, moved to Helena with his family to begin his residency in November.
His wife, a doctor, is taking the rest of her maternal leave while he works at the Bray. Their oldest daughter is now going to preschool (and learning English while she’s at it), while the youngest is at home with Mom.
“The winter was beautiful here,” Alvarez said. Being from one of the few places with winters harsher than Montana, he enjoyed Montana’s challenging ice and snow season and was excited to visit Yellowstone National Park and the Gates of the Mountains.
The extruder is essentially a scaled-up version of the same thing children use when playing with Play-Doh. You put some clay into a chamber and then squeeze, so a new shape comes out in a line — a star, a square, a rhombus. Alvarez took that idea and super-sized it.
He had made a version of this machine after studying at the Royal College of Art in London, intrigued by the idea of constructing a device this large in metal. When it was first sent to a museum for the exhibition he designed and built it for, “the museum people were making (art) and it looked really fun,” Alvarez said.
“Dies” as they’re called, lie around the studio and are hung on the walls, cut with a variety of shapes both smooth and jagged. They’re cut in Townsend and welded in Helena, and Alvarez said the Helena owner of the welding company actually came over to personally deliver them because he was wondering what exactly Alvarez was doing with the devices.
And what he does is fascinating. Alvarez loads clay into the tube of the extruder, locks in the die to the bottom of the device, ratchets up a table underneath and slides a piece of newspaper below the die, then hits a button. “The screw motor for the extruder exerts 3,000 kilos of force,” Alvarez said.
It whines and hums as the clay comes through the die in shapes that seem to form and mold before and after the clay hits the wooden platform underneath. Settling and turning, Alvarez stops the extruder for a moment. “All the moisture seems to get stuck at the bottom,” he said, taking a cheese wire and slicing off a few inches of clay from the blue column that was slipping out of the die.
Alvarez’s columns look like Salvador Dali took a paintbrush to the Pantheon, throwing in wild twists, shapes and forms. Gravity seems to act more strongly on some pieces than others, throwing the viewer’s sense of balance out of wack and challenging what exactly clay is supposed to do.
“I wanted to have the machine do the work for me, to generate work without me making it,” Alvarez said. “The machine was to separate myself from the making.”
That’s part of Alvarez’s talent. From cabinet-maker to clay sculptor, he does not fit easily into what one expects from an artist.
“When you traditionally master a skill, like to throw a vase, the next will look exactly like it without variation,” Alvarez said. “With a plastic material like clay, it’s unlike wood, which is square. Clay is how the hands or the machines are working.”
Now, Alvarez has a few pieces he’s preparing to send to Milan and wants to make use of the Bray’s huge kilns before he leaves in July.
“I want to surprise myself,” Alvarez said about his art and how the extruder fits into it. “When you see something coming out that’s unexpected, that’s a good result.”