Sculptor carves out a legacy in the Valley
BOARDMAN — Standing 16 feet tall, the shine of The Singing Tree’s multi-colored, acrylic-painted leaves are accentuated by sunlight beaming through a large window. Installed earlier this month in the emergency department of Akron Children’s Hospital Beeghly Campus, the sculpture offers a colorful break from what can be a stressful time for children and adults.
“It’s a bright lively tree that could be generating sound. It might be singing soothing melodies to put parents’ and children’s minds at ease,” explained its creator, Youngstown sculptor, educator and musician Tony Armeni.
Whether it’s hosting and performing improv Jazz Nights at Cedars West End, planning his next creation or completing this latest work, each artistic direction aligns with his longtime approach.
“I’ve always loved the challenge of creation,” Armeni said recently.
Commissioned to build a tree for Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley’s new addition, Armeni chose a banana tree as a reference point. The resulting metal installation then became a collaborative effort between Armeni and other area artists.
“The design and model making took a few weeks. The construction took place over five months. Dan Lawrence fashioned the leaves out of 22-gauge steel. Myself, along with Abby Wendle and Connie Kolarik built the trunk and branches using an internal structure and a 16-gauge steel skin,” he explained.
“There was a considerable amount of engineering that went into the piece. For weight and installation, the trunk had to be made in two sections. I devised a socket system to allow the branches to plug into the trunk. There was an intensive period of bodywork done on the leaves and trunk to prepare everything for paint.”
The Singing Tree joins his other works viewable in public spaces including the Butler Institute of American Art, Fellows Riverside Gardens in Mill Creek Park, bike rack sculptures in downtown Youngstown, a penguin from the 2004 Penguin Parade in St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital and an 8-foot-tall fiberglass and acrylic lacquer figure in the Crocker Town Center Mall in Port Charlotte, Fla.
He said, “The art can enrich the space. It can encourage creative expression. It enhances community identity and helps make cross-cultural connections.”
Showing an ability to plan and complete projects at an early age, Armeni built and raced soap box derby cars on Midlothian Boulevard, east of South Avenue.
After graduating from Boardman High School, he attended the University of Cincinnati to study engineering, but, as he acknowledged, “It became apparent that this was too rigid a vocation.”
He continued, “I returned to Youngstown and took a job at GF Business Equipment where I worked for a year, and then enrolled in art school at Youngstown State University. I planned on becoming a graphic designer but one of my classmates told me about Mike Moseley and the ceramics program. I took an introduction to ceramics class and found that my true interest was in creating work three-dimensionally. From here, I took more ceramics classes and sculpture classes and applied what skills I had developed up to this point to my artmaking.”
Armeni’s works frequently use clay and metal as the foundation. He then adds other materials to enhance the finished product. Altogether, they become a combination of art, science and math.
“By adding particles of plastic and other metals to my ceramic pieces, I’m transforming the object into something that requires deciphering. It’s no longer read as ceramic but could be anything,” he said.
For someone who has grown up and still lives in the area known as the Rust Belt, he honors it by incorporating discarded steel into new shapes and eye-pleasing sights.
“Leaving my large-scale steel work to rust seems a natural choice. Oftentimes, I have my large work shot blasted to remove the mill scale, leaving a clean silver surface. Setting this outside, I enjoy the progression of color from orange to brownish orange to brown and, finally, after several years a deep walnut brown. I like the way that the rusted steel integrates with the landscape,” Armeni said.
He continued, “A lot of the materials that I build with are pulled from scrap hoppers of local fabrication shops. It’s rewarding to give objects destined to be melted down to make new steel a new life as sculpture. And, oftentimes, the pieces that are available fit into my shape vocabulary of rings, discs and arcs.”
His use of these materials has produced moving decorative pieces that can be placed on a desk or table to elegantly shaped birdbaths, larger works such as The Singing Tree and even motorized installations.
“Much of my small-scale work references planets or flowers. The smaller work tends to be more precious with a focus on precision and fine detail. The human scale work and larger are more gestural and often combine circles and arcs so geometry becomes a consideration in the overall design.
“I put together a spinning ride for the “Spectacle” performance art exhibition at the Trumbull Art Gallery in 1996. I had accumulated wheels, rings and a large bowl and with a rough plan everything came together. Another motorized piece involves a portable table saw, a bowl and a bowling ball. It was set up as an experiment to see what results this combination would bring. The balls are transformed into fractured crusty orbs. Another piece spins a bowling ball at the base of a steel hemisphere and is a demonstration of centrifugal force.”
Armeni imparted his knowledge gained after achieving a BFA from YSU in 1982 and MFA from the University of Cincinnati in 1987 and years putting his academic studies into real world usage to Youngstown State University students.
“I was an adjunct professor at YSU for 31 years. I taught two-dimensional and three-dimensional design, introduction to sculpture and advanced sculpture. I’m able to create the work that I do in large part because of the formal design information that I was given as a student.”
After YSU did not renew his contract, Armeni saw it as a “blessing” and now embraces the benefits of being able to spend more time in his studio located for the past 27 years in the Ward Bakery Building in Youngstown. He’s also developing hands-on programs for the next generation of artists.
“I’m planning to have classes in my studio for making welded steel sculpture. The number of participants, length of class, session and cost are yet to be determined,” he said.
For examples of his work, visit www.armenisculpture.com.