Thinking Big

Sean Pace. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Sean Pace. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

People who know him are expecting big things from Sean Pace.

Just a few years out of UNCA, the sculptor-painter-conceptual artist has already helped start an art gallery, an alternative fuels business, an art and design incubator and a sculpture park.

That’s all in addition to his artwork, which explores big concepts through metal and salvage material sculptures that are, for the most part, interactive or performance driven. Pace — who also goes by the name Jinx — thinks big, and his artwork makes a proportionately large impact.

“I want my work to be the most visually gratifying thing in the room,” says Pace. “I want to grab people’s attention so they can’t look away.”

While he’s also a painter, the work that has perhaps gotten Pace the most attention are his traffic-stopping pieces that sit in the front area of the Phil Mechanic Building on Roberts Street in Asheville’s River Arts District. On warm days, when the building’s wide garage door is open, you don’t even have to leave your car to see them, but few could resist getting a closer look.

The ClassWar Limo — a kind of a rickshaw with oversized wheels and a canopy made of a marimba that can be played by the driver — is whimsical and entertaining on the surface, but on a deeper level explores the relationship between those who do the work in our society and those who benefit from their labor. It’s hard not to laugh when you see The Boxer and The Chicken Shooter, a two-piece performance-based sculpture that includes a motorcycle-and dentist-chair-driven mechanism that shoots rubber chickens in the direction of a moving metal frame hung with a circle of boxing gloves. As technically impressive as it is visually captivating, the piece is comical, but equally thought provoking. Will the Boxer be able stave off the onslaught of flightless birds hurled at it? Can any of us stave off the relentless absurdity of what life throws at us? Pace makes subtle points through sculptures that are anything but. The questions he ponders are not new to artists, but the way he explores them seems like completely new territory. And while spectators marvel at his motors and machinery, to Pace they’re just a means to an end. “I like that mechanics can facilitate ideas,” he says.

Pace’s work represents a singular vision, but it couldn’t come together without collaboration, he says. The lounger in the Class War Limo is an old tractor seat donated by one friend and reupholstered by another. The washing machine part on the bottom of The Boxer came from a washer someone gave him. Someone else just happened to be getting rid of the dentist’s chair in the chicken-shooter piece. “It’s almost like these things build themselves,” he jokes.

But of course that leaves out the most important part of the equation: Pace’s ability to take broken down pieces of our material culture and reconstruct them into a statement about the culture that cast them off in the first place.

Pace says he mostly works intuitively without much sketching out in advance. “Certain elements seem to marry themselves together, and I just have to create the bridge.” In addition to visual impact, there are issues of functionality to work out: weight, equilibrium, conversion of energy. But while some artists are very focused on process, it’s clear that Pace considers the materials and construction of secondary importance to the effect that the final product will have on its viewer. “I want to see the facility of the thing engaged,” he says.

And certainly his work is nothing if not engaging. The marimba on the Class War Limo really works. He’s given several demonstrations of the chicken shooter, including one in Pack Square a few years ago. While some people will get the statements he’s trying to make — or even just the fact that he’s trying to make them — Pace says he realizes that there are others who will just think he’s doing something outrageous with rubber chickens. He says he’s fine with being known as the chicken-shooter guy. Those who miss the point may still take something from the work “Maybe I’m just providing a positive art experience for them,” he says. “Anything that opens people up to wanting to have conversations is a success.”

t’s difficult to separate Pace’s artwork from his other endeavors, in part because his work seems to be a form of working out issues involved in his higher goals of positive social change. “Art can be a vehicle for social change,” he says. “But a lot of other things can too.”

Having restored the space for the Flood Gallery in the Phil Mechanic Building’s basement, he now sits on the gallery’s board. He’s a part-owner of Blue Ridge Biofuels, a company that produces clean-burning alternative fuel for vehicles and homes. He also does occasional sustainable forestry work.

“Jinx is a visionary,” says Jolene Mechanic, co-owner of the Phil Mechanic Building. She gave Pace studio space in exchange for his restoration work, and also collaborates with him on other projects. “He’s the very definition of sustainable energy. If he had the finances to support a fraction of his creativity and imagination, this world would be a better place.”

Pace and a group of friends are already working to make Western North Carolina a better place for creative types by turning an old school in Alexander into an “idea accelerator” that gives artists and designers the tools and training they need to transform their ideas into reality. The new center — which Pace envisions will house a rapid-prototyping machine, kilns, and other equipment that is often too expensive for one artist to purchase alone — is being built in part through another collaboration with local nonprofit Riverlink. Pace and Asheville sculptor Mark Gilbeau are in the process of dismantling the “blue buildings” which sit on Riverlink’s riverside property and bringing parts of them up to the space in Alexander, keeping the material out of a landfill and reusing it to benefit local artists. In exchange for the buildings, Pace and his collaborators will supply Riverlink with some of the pieces they need for the sculpture park that will be developed where the building once sat.

This creative exchange earned Pace and Gilbeau Riverlink’s Critical Link Award last fall, an honor given to people instrumental in revitalizing and improving the French Broad corridor.

“Sean’s an amazing person who views the world as an opportunity to create and collaborate,” says Riverlink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin. “Through his art and his sense of humor, he really gets people to rethink basic attitudes.”

Pace’s current and upcoming projects including an Etch-a-Sketch-style machine with two motors and a tire that spins around and makes giant drawings in the dirt, and a “social landscape project” powered by a vehicle that’s part two-wheeled bike, part painting machine. The painting-machine part is made from an old “men at work sign” reconfigured into a receptacle that holds a roll of paper and a mechanism that squirts paint from turkey basters. Pace intends to ride the vehicle through different neighborhoods in Asheville, knocking on doors and engaging residents in pedaling around, participating in painting of the landscape in their own neighborhood. It’s a big idea — the kind people have come to expect from Pace — but there’s no reason to doubt he’ll pull it off with his trademark humor and style.

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