The Record, October 2011 -- THE CLOTHES HANGING around the home of Chris Beck ’98 are his, but he doesn’t wear them (at least not all of them). The dresses, shirts, jackets, and pants are the latest way in which Beck expresses himself artistically. These clothes are not clothes at all. They are made from scrap metal to look like the real thing.
Since graduating from Hampden-Sydney, Beck has found many forms of creative expression, from the classroom to murals.
It was 2004 before he expanded his idea of art beyond “something that had to fit in the hallway in a frame.” He was travelling the backroads of his native state of Alabama, searching for art to give his family and friends. There he fell in love with the work of R. A. Miller, a Georgia folk artist.
From a young age, art had been a hobby for Beck; like many children, he loved drawing with markers, crayons, and chalk. He says, “I had a desire to create, but nothing felt right.”
"As much as Professor Lewis wants you to learn technique and skills, he also wants you to be comfortable doing your work in the studio, whether you're drawing or painting or print making. He's not going to do the work for you. He wants you to be very hands-on and that's kind of a cool deal."
CHRIS BECK '98
As an adult, this love of art manifested as collecting rather than creating. However, after years of meeting artists he enjoyed and respected, Beck again tried his hand at making art and this time he found a medium that worked for him: sculpture. He started welding scrap metals into new forms and found an art that both spoke to him and extended from him.
Of his work, the Orlando [Florida] Sentinel art critic says: "Chris Beck is this amazing metal artist from Dalton, Georgia. He creates sculptures of clothing. He's been working on this piece of ladies' underwear hanging . . . well, you'll have to ask his wife about coming home with her bosses and clients to fi nd her underwear hanging on clothes-lines all over the yard. Chris showed at Folk Fiesta, which is one of the largest folk art shows in the southeast. He's been creating a huge following, after only showing for the last few years."
That following has taken him to shows in Nashville, Kansas City, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Chicago, and New York.
"What I do is not abstract, not naïve, and not contemporary. I am a collector of things trashed, mostly steel, and I enjoy the process of making something powerful and new from the discarded. The truth is, there's nothing special about welding metal to metal or nailing tin to barn wood, but I enjoy my reaction to the images I produce. What I like best about what I do is being able to envision an image and then create it, and I am happiest when what I've made is the same as what I saw in my mind."
Despite his critical and professional success in just a few years, Beck resists calling himself an artist. "I might just be a welder," he says earnestly. "Sculptor is more descriptive of me, I guess."
Coming from a small Alabama town, Beck's idea of what "art" is has changed dramatically over the years and he credits his experience at Hampden-Sydney for fostering that transformation. In high school, Beck had experimented with what he calls "traditional art stuff," such as painting with acrylics and drawing with charcoal, though he never considered welding because to him sculpture was done in bronze and marble.
"Professor David Lewis has a very non-traditional painting style. He opened my eyes to what art could be. The Fine Arts major was just getting started then-I was an English major-so I took just about every studio art class I could. As much as Professor Lewis wants you to learn technique and skills, he also wants you to be comfortable doing your work in the studio, whether you're drawing or painting or print making. He's not going to do the work for you. He wants you to be very hands-on and that's kind of a cool deal."
How did he start making clothing from metal? It started with an ironing board. Though he was inspired by the rustic quality of sculptor Charlie Lucas, Beck was struggling to find his own identity. With a little help from his mother, he found the artist within. "My mom had given me an ironing board to use in one of my big ol' sculptures, like Charlie Lucas, and I had the idea of taking that ironing board and making a dress or a shirt or something. I wanted to make a piece of clothing to put on the ironing board, like it was being ironed. Then I thought, 'That could be the sculpture'. Once I started doing clothes, it kind of blew up."
He says, "I am intrigued by people who have a natural desire to create, to have an impulsive, childlike need to simply produce art. To me, they are the real artists: those who are not reaching for fame, fortune, power, or prestige, but those who do it because they can't not do it."
For most of his life, Chris Beck never thought he could be an artist. Having found a medium he enjoys and can manipulate, now an artist is all he can be.