Smile Politely

Sculptor Andy White on the art of coaxing beauty out of scraps

A metal sculpture by Andy White. A hummingbird attempts to pollinate a large flower which it cannot see is being held in the mouth of a large snake.
“Pretender” by Andy White

Sculptor Andy White is relatively new to Champaign-Urbana: he moved to the area in the summer of 2020 from South Carolina, and this year was his first time participating at Boneyard Arts Festival. If you had the chance to see any of his sculptures on display, I’m sure you would agree they leave quite an impression. As soon as I saw his piece Beauty at Boneyard, I had ten different questions about how he went about creating this piece. I recently corresponded with him and he graciously answered all those questions about “Beauty” and more. Here’s what he had to say:

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Can you talk about the progression of your sculpture-making and your personal learning process? 

Andy White: I’ve been into making things (“real” things that I can pick up, hold in my hands, turn around and look at from different angles) as long as I can remember. I built a lot of models as a kid — airplanes and rockets mostly. I liked things that were designed for motion, things that had weight and moving parts, things that had energy and made noise. That’s still true. The difference now, I think, is that I’m interested in capturing some essence or idea beyond the actual “thing” itself. I like the memories that things can hold, and I like stepping into that world of discarded stuff and trying to make sense of it. I like trying to create something interesting or meaningful from a pile of scraps. There is beauty potentially hidden everywhere. The fun is in trying to coax it out.

Andy White stands next to a large metal sculpture of a bear with butterfly wings. He is looking up at the sculpture with his arms crossed. The sculpture is several feet taller than him.
Andy White

SP: When you are starting a new piece or a new project, what does your process look like? Do you have a clear idea of how you want it to turn out before you begin; is there a lot of experimentation or improvising along the way?

White: Sometimes beginning something new is exhilarating and sometimes it is paralyzing. Sometimes I start with a fully developed idea and work toward it. Sometimes I start with a particular piece of material and build around it. Sometimes I just start and see what happens. Regardless of how it starts, there is always a lot of improvising and there is always the potential for things to go badly. There is a kind of magic to watching something good take shape piece by piece by your own hands. That process, for me, is filled with missteps and accidents both happy and unhappy. It’s also filled with smoke, noise, heat, fumes, and usually also blood, sweat, cussing, and loud music.

Andy White

SP: This was my first year at Boneyard, and your piece “Beauty” when I walked into 119 E. University was the very thing I saw, and it was definitely a “wow” moment for me. I can’t imagine anyone walked by without stopping to look. Can you talk about the creation of that?

White: Thank you! “Beauty” is a piece I made to go along with another Ceratopsian dinosaur named “Grace.” The two are facing off, one pivoting and charging and the other rearing back on her hind legs. It is unclear if they are fighting or flirting.

Andy White holds a piece of paper in the foreground of a sketch of his dinosaur sculpture "Beauty". In the background, the sculpture is in its early stages with just a basic shape taking form. The sculpture is outside.
Andy White

Large pieces like “Beauty” take a long time and I haven’t made one in a while. In South Carolina I had my summers off so I had a few months where I could count on being able to work long days and plan and execute something as ambitious as an eight-foot-long dinosaur. That’s not the case anymore – my economy of time and energy is different now and so I have shifted more toward projects that I can fit into our reality.

I start a big piece like “Beauty” with some sketches of what I’m going for. I put some reference drawings or photos on a board that I can look at while I’m working. I build it from the inside out because that’s the only way I know how (I don’t have any fancy, precision tools and I don’t generally use new materials that would give me the luxury of choosing the size of parts). “Beauty” is a Frankenstein of whatever I had around at the time. I can still tell you where a lot of the individual parts came from, but that’s boring for everyone but me. It’s a bundle of time capsules.

SP: Where do you source the materials for your sculptures?

White: It’s 90% discarded garbage. I pick up odd and ends as I walk around or from trash piles on the curb. Once people find out that I use old stuff to make new stuff they want to give me things. I’ll usually take it, but I’m also getting more cautious about accumulating too much junk. Too much and it starts to feel suffocating. When I get around to doing a big piece again, though, I’ll quickly burn through a lot of accumulated material.

SP: What are you currently working on?

White: I’m currently working on a second volume of my recent drawings to go along with the Rusted Rabbit album I wrote and recorded (with some help) last year. I’ve started writing songs for the next album, and I plan on making some videos to go along with the music. I’ve been rehabbing some old electric guitars including one from the former Soviet Union (it’s a terrible guitar that’s had an unfortunate life and my goal is to make it playable again). I’ve got a couple of sculptures started (a fox and a rabbit) but their bare bones are waiting for a moment of inspiration and/or a day off.

A drawing of a house on a single tiny leg. The House is brown and red, and there are splotches of blue in the background.
Andy White

 SP: I read on your website that you have been drawing more again — how is that going for you?

White: Drawing often works for me simply because it takes much less time than sculpting something (or writing and recording a song). The ideas are the same as those I pursue through sculpture or music — it’s just the tools to capture and express the ideas are different. One of the things that my various art pursuits have in common is that I am technically lousy at all of them. I am a terrible welder. I can’t paint or draw with any kind of skill. I’m a mediocre guitar player at best and an awful singer. But, honestly, I have come to realize that technical skill isn’t even half of the equation when it comes to art. For me, art is about catching something slippery that’s lurking around out there and putting it in a form where someone else can see it too. You see some blurry shadow out of the corner of your eye and you turn your head to bring it into focus but it keeps skittering away out at the edges of your vision. If you can grab hold of that and bring it into focus for someone else, in some form that can’t be described any other way, you’re an artist. So that’s what I worry about rather than my technical skills. Some level of skill is good, of course, so you can try to translate what you’re seeing/feeling into something someone else can experience.

Metal sculpture by Andy White of a bird.
Andy White

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

White: That’s a tough one. I think the big pieces are really gratifying just because of the effort it takes to execute something large. It took me months to make the bear with butterfly wings (Passenger, named after the Iggy Pop song) that stands outside our house. I really like some of the birds I’ve done – I think they’re objectively very good and they are part of my personal landscape. I spent the better part of a year on the first Rusted Rabbit album. I had a few copies pressed into vinyl so I could hold it in my hands. I both love and hate the result. That’s true of a lot of things I’ve made, I guess. Maybe hope that the next one will be all love and no hate is one of the reasons you start making the next one.

SP: So, what is next for you? 

White: It’s simpler to say what I’d like to do than what I’ll actually do. I’d like to navigate the tension between wanting to finish things I’ve already started and start new things that I may never finish. I have a piano in the barn now, and I’d like to play it often. I’d like to lose five more pounds. I’d like to spend more evenings watching bats and sitting by the fire. I’d like to find a gallery that sees my scattered approach to art as a strength rather than a weakness. I’d like to find some local musicians to work with. I’d like to go to a lot more places I’ve never been to, eat foods I’ve never eaten, and do things I’ve never done. I’d like to walk the line. I’d like to own blue shoes, raise good kids, and get better haircuts. I’d like to have a garden that’s more flowers than weeds. Ultimately I’d like to catch some ghosts and leave the world a little richer than it was when I got here.

If you want to check out White’s work, he will have a piece in the upcoming “Around the Block IV” show at Giertz Gallery. His music is available to stream online, and you can see more of his sculptures, art, and process on his website and Instagram.

More Articles