Issue Archives
Ageless
Personal age can be a factor in what types of materials craftspeople choose to work with, as well as the size of pieces they agree to craft.

Harold Balazs, a Mead, Washington craftsman and sculptor in multiple-media, admitted that he “can’t do things like a 50 year-older anymore,” in spite of being both “driven,” and “workaholic.” When he spoke of his age, however, he had just finished a trailer-load of large, welded stainless steel pieces comprising a wind-driven sculpture commissioned for his hometown. “I won’t work with that material again and I may not build anything quite so large either,” he announced.

“I’ve developed carpal tunnel symptoms,” he explained. But the bigger factor in this case was not his wrists, but his wife. “Rosemary has forbidden me to do anything this big again,” he said, with a bit of mischief in his voice. “This latest piece, before being put on the trailer, was freestanding in the yard. A section of it fell over and almost crushed us,” he added with a pause, allowing a Pieter Bruegel-like image to linger in the air, of fragile humans pursued and consumed by their creations.

If age creates some physical limitations for Balazs, it is unlikely that it will ever put a dent in his creative powers. From his earliest days, growing up in Depression-era Ohio, he was intrigued enough with his father’s sheet metal trade to learn the skills necessary to shape all manner of natural materials into new forms. That era also taught him to couple creativity with the values of conservation and pragmatism. For example, with scrap wood and planking he saved from 20 years of commissioned projects, Balazs built a 25-foot gaff-rigged ketch that he sailed for years. “The scraps from that project were used to make countless picture frames,” he laughed.

“Perhaps I was naïve,” he continued, “but as a college student I assumed that I could make a living doing this sort of self-employed thing.” While at Washington State, in Pullman, Balazs began making enamel-on-copper costume jewelry. Before long, he was selling to stores in Seattle, Spokane and Portland. A good thing, too, because he soon was married and helping to support a family with three children. “Part of surviving meant doing all aspects of the work myself.” Over the years that practice has not abated; he continues to find value in developing inexpensive ways to create. And on occasion he has even made his own tools, jigs and enamel-firing kilns when necessity called.

Balazs’ artistic influences are plentiful, from Paul Klee, René Magritte and Henry Moore to Georges Rouault and Barbara Hepworth. As for outside influences, which may contribute to his ease with quirkiness and irony, Balazs counts on people like singer Tom Waits, writer Kurt Vonnegut and filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. “I see myself as an arranger of images,” Balazs said. “It really makes little difference in what medium; I have an interest in absolutely everything, with the exception of Lawrence Welk and creamed carrots.”
St. Charles Church, in Spokane, was his first big commission. It was also a template for how he prefers to work. “I don’t see how artists can keep doing the same thing,” he commented. “I must have five to ten things going on at the same time or I go crazy.” He also enjoys collaborative work and has done numerous projects with other artists and architects. For that, the American Institute of Architecture awarded him the coveted National Craftsmanship Medal.

At St. Charles Church he created six doors each made up of small frames, each crafted with multicolored, powdered glass sprinkled into hand-cut stencils with the meticulous precision of Buddhist mandalas, the color juxtaposed with bold Byzantine lines. For the same job, Balazs also designed the interior furniture, made the nine-foot enamel and steel cross, the altar, monstrance, pulpit and baptismal font.

That commission led to many others in churches and at other public buildings and public spaces. At St. Mark’s Church, which has been added onto over the years, Balazs said that his work “adds a common thread,” a unifying design effect amongst otherwise eclectic architectural styles. A state fish hatchery in Alaska hosts another of his pieces—a 10 x 100-foot stylized, enamel mural of spawning salmon.

His multi-panel, concrete relief at Seattle Pacific College is an example of his fondness for different materials and of collaboration with building designers. Rather than await the completion of the building to consider how to mount a large piece of art, Balazs suggested building the design into the concrete forms! Using Styrofoam that he cut in his workshop—and based on a pencil sketch he had done—the cast was placed inside of concrete forms while still horizontal. Once poured and dry, the Styrofoam forms were removed and—voila—the design was a permanent part of the slab wall. “Why spend $1000 a lineal foot to install it later when you can get the same effect for $1 a foot beforehand?” he asked.

Besides his work in metals, glass and concrete, Balazs feels equally at home using rock, brick, clay, paper, watercolors or wood. For a brick relief project—a library in Burien—he devised a method for carving the unfired bricks first, using Styrofoam as the mortar, and numbering the bricks so they could be reassembled after firing.

Balazs is conservative in his use of the word “artist,” a term he avoids for describing himself. “That’s a term only history should bestow on a person,” he said. So, in a tribute to his craft, vision and indelible impact on Northwest art, a video produced about Balazs in 2001 was careful about the label they bestowed on him. While many interviewed for the video called it as they saw it (several of whom used the “artist” word liberally) the film producers named the piece Harold Balazs; a Living Treasure; Creating Wonder.

You can see Harold’s work at The Art Spirit Gallery as well as Tinman Gallery.