New technique accentuates art

Published May 16, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

On the floor of a corrugated-steel building that once served as a gourmet "pickling" kitchen, artist Jack Casey creates his version of wall sculpture. Made from wood veneer he cuts with a saber saw then brushes roughly with thickened gesso, the finished sculpture seems to swirl in abstract circles, squiggles and curlicues.

Even better, Casey's sculpture emanates light, projecting soulful halos that are actually reflections of the fluorescent paint he swathes on the back of each piece.

The result is a punctuation of joy and light.

"They're more than just paintings," says Tampa artist Kathy Morrison, a partner with Casey in his other line of work, art restoration. "They're paintings and sculpture."

Wall sculpture is an ideal choice for a collector shopping for something unusual to jazz up a living or dining space without elbowing into the room itself. Wall sculpture is well-suited for homes large and small, says Laurel Barnhart, who owns Interiors by Laurel, an interior decorating firm in the Brandon area.

"You can have beauty and art in a small space," she said. "Because it hangs on the wall, it's perfect for smaller-scale surroundings of a condominium, townhome or apartment."

In a large space, she adds, a piece of wall sculpture hung high will "draw your eye upward, accentuating the height."

Casey, who studied art at St. Petersburg Junior College, the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida, began experimenting with wall sculpture in 1983. He had been primarily creating abstract paintings on stretched canvases when he reached what he calls an "intellectual cul-de-sac."

"I went into a state of trying to re-invent my art," he explains.

Over the years, Casey had studied the work of a number of artists working in the wall sculpture genre, but didn't feel they "carried the idea far enough."

Practice and perfection of his technique led him to incorporate a variety of ideas that make his work both unique and memorable. He mixes the gesso _ a liquid that changes the texture of a surface _ with marble dust and polymer. He also pushes the gesso around with a broom.

The application leaves each sculpture pocked with crevices and irregularities. A visitor walking into his studio is first struck by the color the sculpture seems to project _ almost like shadows.

"His work also looks good in a corporate setting," Morrison said. "It doesn't take up a lot of space in a room, yet it commands a lot of space. It can make a room."

Hal Leek and Mary McDowell turned to wall sculpture after longing to fill their new Lutz home with something beyond "paintings and prints." They faced a lot of blank walls but few choices.

"We looked around Tampa and zero," said Leek, a retired real estate investor from Atlantic City. "Very few galleries were offering what we were looking for, and that was wall sculpture."

Leek is not one to shy away from a challenge. In the throes of a "midlife crisis," he traveled to Miami a few years ago with a dream of qualifying for the PGA Senior Tour. One-and-a-half years later, he gave up on the dream, happy he had tried but armed with the knowledge that he just "wasn't good enough."

Last year, the couple was casting about for a second career they could share when it suddenly hit them: Why not gather a good selection of wall sculpture and open their own gallery?

Leek and McDowell realized they had stumbled upon a small, but very real niche in the art collector's market. On April 1, they opened the National Wall Art Gallery in the Decorative Arts Center of Tampa.

Currently, the gallery carries the work of more than two dozen sculptors from around the country. Prices range from $2,000 to $12,500. The wall sculpture is available in a variety of materials, including bronze, stainless steel, glass and copper.

The gallery also carries fossil murals by the Green River Stone Company in Wyoming, which produces wall sculpture from 50-million-year-old slabs of shale.

Although the gallery is open to the public, it caters largely to interior designers who buy pieces for clients with luxury homes, Leek said. Within the first month, the gallery sold six.

Barnhart, the interior decorator, attributes the emerging interest in the medium to the growing trend among homeowners "to put more money into art" instead of in the stock market or expensive trips.

"People are investing in their homes instead of traveling as much," she says. "A beautiful piece of art can be enjoyed long-term and over the course of a lifetime."

Casey, who is not affiliated with the National Wall Art Gallery, sells work from his comfortable Drew Park loft and studio that he shares with his two cats, Crebs and Alley Cat. He offers wall sculpture that is both massive and moderate in scale. Casey describes his work, which is collected by renowned Florida artist James Rosenquist as well as the University of South Florida, as "out of the picture frame and into the room."

In fact, Casey's wall sculpture can make the viewer forget about walls entirely. Because of its whimsical sense of light and movement, a large 4-by-8-foot piece commands an entire wall or atrium space. The halo light the sculpture projects is purely "a mist of color," he says, and doesn't require any electricity.

"The fundamental thing an artist tries to do is direct the viewer's eye," Casey says. "Once you start working outside the picture plane, it's hard to go back."

Artist Jack Casey can be reached at 350-0226 or by e-mail at

The National Wall Art Gallery is at 305 N Willow Ave. in Tampa. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 258-2244.