Urban alchemist takes on city’s scrap

Top American artist and ‘urban alchemist’ Boris Bally will be taking up residence in Londonderry throughout August, working with local artists to transform discarded street signs into unique pieces of urban art.

He will be leading the Reclaim the Streets project as part of Derry City Council’s CultureCraft legacy programme, merging art, design and craft to create functional and funky pieces of urban furniture and smaller bespoke pieces, from coasters to jewellery sing road signs. His work incorporates the eye-catching graphics of the signs as part of his subject matter.

Both challenging and witty, he recycles 30,000 pounds of scrap metal each year right down to the last shavings.

Speaking ahead of his visit, he said: “Actually, I’ve not done anything like this before. This project has so many exciting components that it’s unprecedented and in my opinion quite cutting-edge. For almost three decades I’ve taught numerous metal and design courses but nothing with this optimism and breadth. It’s unique to work with a group of creative people from the community to build furniture.”

“An artist’s responsibility is to connect with and bridge all sectors of community. It’s our duty to engage, share and educate. So much time and energy goes into running this business, but the true ‘soul’ of my practice is what happens when I’m able to contribute to my field, and share with the community.”

Combining the talents of both a goldsmith and a metal worker to hone raw materials into functional pieces, Bally crafts fascinating works which are on display in cities across the world. Although skilled in working with precious metals, the artist prefers to engage with more gritty urban materials, and enjoys the satisfaction of creating a desirable object from something considered unsightly.

“My current body of work transforms recycled street signs, weapon parts, and a wide variety of found materials into objects for reflection. These pieces celebrate raw American street-aesthetic in the form of objects, and I would add that there is always the subversive message of recycling, re-using and hopefully an element of humour.”

Bally attributes his fascination with reclaiming materials to his practical upbringing rather than conscious environmental campaigning.

“My friend Aaron Kramer coined this phrase beautifully - ‘Trash is the Failure of Imagination, there is no excuse for waste! My family came to the USA from Switzerland and the Swiss culture very much believes in ‘Making Do!’ It has been pounded into me all my life. We learned how to fix things and turn broken/discarded stuff into newer, cooler stuff. My family used to periodically visit scrap yards while other kids went to the zoo!

“I remember finding an orange, gym-locker cubby and my parents turned that into a kitchen ‘wall’ where we could store stuff. It’s a magic trick, really - change the context of something and you can make it into something much more special that it originally was, and it can attain added value. I call what I do ‘Reverse Alchemy’ - turning a common material into the precious. It also pokes fun at perceived value. The challenge is far greater than working with precious materials! Getting them to pay big bucks for your design, made of their own discards - essentially it’s repackaging the material and selling it back to them!

“I still run my life to reduce waste, recycle, upcycle and make do. My studio is a recycled School-turned-American Legion Building (1889) which I bought in ‘99 for the cost of an automobile. The staircase railing is made from shovels my UPS driver gave me. The window grates are made of drills the electricians discarded when they ran the power in this place.”

On his much anticipated visit to Derry Boris will be accompanied by his studio manager Rob Boyd, who assists in both the sourcing and production of his work.

“My designs are made locally, by my studio manager Rob Boyd or myself, by hand (HUMANUFACTURED®) with basic, small tools, minimizing consumption of electrical power. We get our material in my eco-minivan, mostly regionally. We further utilize the ‘leftovers’ of the initial process to become the smaller, abstracted objects such as coasters, key fobs, and wearable brooches. What’s left over in the end is metal sawdust and small scraps which I bring back to the scrapyard to get it back into the recycling routine.

“Rob and I are looking forward to working closely with folks from the various sectors of this project. I hope to prove that anything is possible with a little imagination and lots of hard work. “Also, as a group we are capable of making something much greater than we could achieve individually. This unique opportunity will also allow us free exchange between our two cultures, sharing influences, skills, stories. Hopefully this is just the beginning and will blossom into a legacy of sharing.”

To find out how you can sign up for the Reclaim the Streets scheme go to www.derrycity.gov.uk/businessopportunities. Participants will be expected to dedicate a minimum of five days to the project and in the coming weeks an open evening will be held giving local artists the opportunity to chat to the artist and find out more about the project.