BELFAST, Maine — The noisy whirring of a drill on High Street Monday morning pulled people out of their shops. The sight of an intricately wrought steel bench, forged by hand in a Searsmont blacksmith’s shop before being fastened to the sidewalk, kept them there.
The bench — which artist, blacksmith and mechanic Alan Curry said took 110 hours to create — is part of this year’s “Please, Be Seated,” public art installation in downtown Belfast. They join 32 other art projects, some brought back from last summer and some brand-new, for the installation which lasts through October.
Curry is calling the bench and matching chair “Old School.”
“I’ve always liked to weld,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed working with metal and I’ve always made things.”
Other seats that were being placed Monday throughout the downtown included a whimsical bench in bright colors that looked like it was made out of ribbons and two seats resembling a guitar and a baby grand piano.
“What’s great about the project is that it’s a perfect blending of creativity and practicality,” Breanna Pinkham Bebb, the executive director of Our Town Belfast, the group that is coordinated the project, said Monday afternoon. “This is a good outlet for creative work that gets a ton of visibility.”
Artists, including Curry, submit their project proposals and the Our Town Belfast design committee makes the selection. The artists work with project curator Elaine Bielenberg, who is a tireless volunteer, according to Pinkham Bebb.
All that planning and labor is worth it as soon as residents and tourists begin strolling around the downtown, seeking out the benches and chairs. Many take photographs of the artwork and share them on blogs and social media, Pinkham Bebb said.
Heads were definitely turning on High Street Monday while Curry and fellow artist Wes Reddick installed the chair and bench. Curry explained the process of taking straight steel bars and using heat, tools and sweat to craft them into the form he envisioned. He used an acetylene torch and a pair of needle-nose pliers to make tendrils of steel swirl around the seat.
“Like vines climbing up the branches,” he said.
Curry’s path to becoming an artist, like his steel tendrils, did not follow a straight line. The 45-year-old Belfast Area High School graduate had been a “hellion” in school, he said, and had to go to work right after finishing.
“I didn’t have any culture. None,” he said.
But he took art classes while at BAHS, and shocked himself by taking home a best in show award for a student art show at Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum. It was an oil painting he had made of his shop, snowmobile and tools.
But even after his win, Curry did not concentrate on art, instead becoming a mechanic with a do-it-yourself bent and a home and workshop that are located off-the-grid.
Then a few years ago, he took a four-day crash-course in blacksmithing and got hooked. The chair and bench are the first pieces of furniture he has made.
“I think that in this age of instant access … we start to lose track of what it takes to actually make something,” Reddick said. “A piece like this helps us connect to our roots. We’re a species that’s here because we make things. And iron is our basic element in the world. It doesn’t get more basic than forming metal. People like Al have made it into an art form.”