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A Biography of Objects: Calisch at Split Cedar Studios

a man working on a piece of wood

I stopped by sculptor/photographer and Professor Doug Calisch’s Split Cedar Studios in rural Montgomery County to watch the artist prepare for his show—“The Biography of Objects”—which opens at Indianapolis’ 924 Gallery on February 4. He explained his artistic process to art minor Drew Palmer ’11, who was visiting the studio to shoot video for a feature on Calisch the Gallery is producing for the show: “I find materials and construct and put together pieces based on those found and altered materials. I’m not afraid to change things that I find, but there is a sense of repurposing objects, recycling, and finding cool things that other people have discarded and finding ways to use them in my work. “I used to make everything from scratch. Then I realized there’s a neater history in the objects I find. For example, here’s an old level I found that someone had used for decades in their tool shop, and here I am repurposing that making it part of a work of art. I have no idea where this thing came from originally, but, man, it’s got so much rich history that goes beyond my involvement with the material. So I start with these old objects that bring their own history to the piece.”  Photos and text by Steve Charles

a green and white object with a face on it

"Some of these pieces come about thematically, instantly, from the top, and everything is based on that. Others kind of grow visually, then themes kind of sneak in during and after the fact. And I’m okay with that.

"Sometimes you find a single piece and you know that you have to build a whole sculpure around it: This green girl, a shaving brush, I think—I sure kind of liked it. I started with her. She’s green and pink, and I started looking at the relationships between green and pink and black and white—if an object had those colors it made it into the pile for this piece.Then I started to refine it."



a sculpture of a man with a surfboard and other objects

The sculpture with the green girl (definitely not the pieces actual name), partly completed.


a man working on a wooden box

"The way I work—I start with piles. The piles are pretty non-descript at first. Anything on this table is an active player. "This one (in photo above) is just getting started. The other two on this table have become sculptures. One is almost done, the other I’m struggling with now, not sure what to do next. And this one has nothing attached—I’m still shuffling things around, looking at relationships. "I promised myself that I’d use this exhibit to push myself to make some new stuff. It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit in the studio just to think seriously about work. My inclination was to start up where I left off. But it didn't work. I'm not the same person I was three years ago, my life is at a different place. And a lot of the work in the last show had to do with the relationship between natural things and manmade things—and I’ve used a lot of those natural objects up. So, in a way, my hand is forced, because I only work with what I have found. I don’t want to make things from scratch again. I want to use what I have and watch an idea develop. "A couple of month ago, my wife, Laura, and I did a collaborative piece a sort of altar for her yoga studio. The ideas for these pieces really started then."

a piece of art on a wall

The finished piece: "Refuge Maker"

a wooden object with a red cross on it

The finished piece: "Scratching the Surface"

a close-up of a hand

Calisch's work with found and altered materials has taken many forms over the years, beginning with a sabbatical he spent traveling through Appalachia meeting with folk artists in the area. Read about that collaboration here. In 2004, he created a wall of art for Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, Ind., using the donated possessions of cancer patients and their families. Read about that project here and here. Kyle Nickel ’03 wrote of Calisch's work on what became known as "the Cancer Wall" at Ball Memorial, "Wabash men are called to 'live humanely,' and there in the corner of the lobby, with his sleeves rolled up, Doug was doing just that. He did not just make art; he let others trade their possessions for a chance to participate in the process. Maybe they learned that creation and healing are never far apart…"  

a man looking at a piece of wood

"It's funny how this works, because I thought this was going to be the first piece I finished. I thought I was on a roll. Then things got more problematic." 

a green and white box with tools

"I start with these old objects that bring their own history to the piece: I found these keys in an old piano in an abandoned house."

a man holding a tool to cut a animal

"If you smell something that smells like soup, I'm boiling a deer head from a road kill I found. I think I want a jaw bone in one of these pieces. I think they’re beautiful, and rather than a vulture getting it…" Calisch pauses then smiles. "I guess I’m a human vulture!"


a man looking down at something

"The great thing about being an artist is that you get to make things." 
Those words are from Joe Trumpey, one of Calisch's former students. But Calisch personifies them. And Trumpey witnessed that joy of "making" in Calisch's classes and when he lent Doug and Laura a hand as they built their home and the studio during Calisch's first sabbatical. Trumpey went on to build his own house (which the Calisches visited last summer), and his life as a professor at the University of Michigan mirrors his mentor's in many ways.
Another former student says you can't understand Doug Calisch unless you've seen the studio he built—the dozens if not hundreds of odd-ball objects hanging from the walls or scattered on shelves (a silver-plated fish on a board next to the chrome letters "Hollywood," the jawbone of a deer, plaster faces, a stuffed hawk) or piled up on the tables, where a cat occasionally perches. Half studio, half wood shop, with lots of windows, it's a place that practically urges you to create. 
And a place where art is at home. Over the years, Calisch and his sons, Nolan and Sam, have come out here to make all sorts of things together. The sons are grown up now, but when they come home, they'll often spend time in here.
The week prior to my visit, Laura was out of state on vacation. Doug said he rarely went into the house except to sleep and eat a little. Free to do exactly as he pleased, he spent almost all of his time in the studio, making things.

a wooden box with various objects

"Empty Nest Fest"

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