CLAREMONT — “FlatmenSquared” is a series of sculptures Ernest Montenegro has been working on. Artist-in-Residence at Claremont's Makerspace for the months of April and May, Montenegro has been expanding one of his Flatmen pieces in a new material.
The piece depicts a swimmer whose body intersects three boxes. With one arm breaking out of the water and its head turned to capture a breath, the figure expresses both confinement and escape, and that most ephemeral of moments between breathing and turning one's face back into the water.
Montenegro began as a painter, but he fell in love with bronze 30 years ago and since then most of his work is bronze.
“So in this instance what I did was challenge myself to work in a material I never work in, and this piece is an enlargement of a piece half this size,” he said. “The cost is immensely less because this is just screen-door screen or mesh. This series is called Flat Men Squared and its premised on a lot of happenstance — not pushed to a finished sensibility.
“This is not complete because I'm going to cover the whole piece in tempered glass and make it a fountain, a water passageway over it — I haven't found a place for it yet,” he said.
Such captured half-moments are used in Montenegro's other series, which can be seen on his website. In the Jazz series the musicians appear as they would in a smoky, dimly lit room, with sudden details standing out; the turn of a wrist over the piano keys, the imprint of weaving in a worn jacket.
“I was trying to capture the atmosphere of jazz,” said Montenegro.
The Figures in the City series may be faces in a passing crowd, or people funneled across the road at a crosswalk. His work casts an ephemeral moment in a fairly permanent medium. Bronze is certainly one of the longest lasting materials, but on the other end of the artistic spectrum are works that vanish in a minute, like soap bubbles and great cooking.
This work in screen-door mesh won't last like the bronzes.
“Nothing's forever, anyway,” he said. “Everything is a sand painting — the Buddhists and the Native Americans make them and then dump them in the river.”
Why sculpture instead of painting? Are there advantages to sculpture?
“There are no advantages; there's more process in sculpture. Painting's more direct. I taught at NHIA [New Hampshire Institute of Art] for 10 years and one of the things I told my students is it's like a radio dial, just tuning in until you find the material the artist wants to work in.”
Montenegro was born in Albuquerque. His father was Chilean abstract expressionist painter, Enrique Montenegro, and his mother a concert pianist, Sara Rosebaum. He was educated through an apprenticeship in stone-carving in Queens, New York and through an apprenticeship in bronze casting with Richard Rosenblum in Boston; currently his works are on exhibit at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Most Claremonters are familiar with at least one piece of Montenegro's, the OurHandsThenAndNow sculpture in the park by the Visitor's Center. Shaped like a tall, narrow sail, it has panels of cut-out handprints, like children's artwork: it's ambitious, austere and cheerful at the same time.
Montenegro built it for the Claremont 250th anniversary celebration.
“There are a lot of interesting, spooky things about this sculpture, in a good way,” he said. “The story behind it is Claremont made an announcement for the 250th anniversary. I had run out of money and I was working for UPS for Christmas, and I heard this announcement so I thought, why not throw a bid in for something. I met with the committee two days before the Christmas holiday and I told them an abstract. They said, 'Go for it, come back in January and we'll talk about it.' During the Christmas break I made a model, glued it all together and put in on a base and I said, this will work.
“Then I said if I'm going to go before this committee I should do some homework and see if anybody would be willing to pay for it, so I called up a local guy at Stone Forge, Ed Leskiewicz, and asked if he would donate in-kind welding, and he said Yes, he was in. So I said, we have a local bridge company, Can-Am, what the heck. I made an appointment and met with two guys, an engineer and the Claremont plant's general manager, Carmine Macchiagodena, and he was imposing, a great big man. We sat at this big long table and talked. My thought was I would see how much it would cost to build it and then I would start raising money. So there's the engineer sitting on my right and Carmine's on the other side of the table looking at me, I'm explaining, they look at each other, they cross eyes, and Carmine says, 'What size is this thing?
“And I said, '20 feet,' being humble, it would be a lot of money anyway. Then Carmine was like, 'How about 30 feet?'
“And I'm like, these guys want to make some money. And I'm like okay, 30 feet. Then it went to 40 feet, then to 50 feet. And the bigger it gets the more exciting it gets, but of course it's a lot more money. Meeting's over and Carmine says, kind of under his breath, 'We can do this.' So I go home to my wife and I'm thinking, I better confirm this. So I call him up and I'm like, 'Carmine, did I hear that you'd be willing to build this thing?' And he said, 'Absolutely.'
“So I had all my guns out and I went to the 250th meeting, and what could they say? It was going to be donated. By unanimous vote, green light. One company after another threw in money and threw in their efforts. So it was neat. It really was many hands. The cool thing is I've done many public sculptures, all far away, and this one was all within two miles. I've met so many incredible people doing it.”
TwinState MakerSpaces, Inc.'s Artist In Residence Program at the Claremont MakerSpace is supported in part by a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.