Photos by Asia Morris. Full gallery below.
Sherry Ray-Von is an artist, to say the least, and far exceeds the boundaries of any category within the creative realm. She is not only a sculptor, but a scavenger, seeking out the used and discarded trash of the less appreciative, to find a place and a creative purpose for each found object. She is not only a metalsmith, but a woman finding solace through wielding raw materials. She is not simply a maker, but an innately innovative creature called to create.
“When Mikey was going to Orange County High School of the Arts, I would go trolling through the alleys for metal,” explained Sherry Ray-Von. “I would take him to school and I would go down all of them. Through Santa Ana, Orange, then back home. I’d have screwdrivers and tools and anything I needed to take things apart and put them in the car. I had a van. No seats in the back. I had packing tape and boxes so I could pack things up and throw them in. Then I started filling the storage unit, and I brought all of that here with me to Long Beach. I moved here eight years ago.”
She sits at her dining table-turned-display counter in her three-story loft and explains why casting is her current calling.
"I took a jewelry-metals class and when we started to cast, that is when I fell in love with it," she said, her face becoming rufescent. "I took this class for six years, and every time I would learn something new, I would cry. I'd never been so in love."
The humble woman knows her worth, the type of woman who rarely ventures from her workspace if not to collect more materials or to learn a new skill. She works tirelessly, with nothing else to do but to create, with no other purpose but to relieve her always-burning furnace of a mind through unceasing, innovative, self-motivated action.
"When I started classes over at LBCC, I studied anything that had the word metal in it," she explained. "I took welding, I took forklift—I took all these classes—sculpture for metal... And I took them all at the same time to see which was my thing, which one I would like. I ended up liking them all. So [the jewelry metal class], because it made me cry, I decided, 'Well, I’ll do this then.' I ended up taking it for a long time, to the point where people were like, ‘You can’t be here anymore. You have to go.’”
Ray-Von continued, “There’s a scientific magic to it. And of course, like anything that you’re making with materials, somewhere there’s the science in it, but in regard to this—when you carve something out of wax and the next thing you know it becomes a ring—that whole process between point A and point B is magic.
No one in my class ever, ever, ever, ever during all those years, wanted to melt their own metal. So I decided, 'I’ll just stay here all day burning it and pouring it.' And I loved it. I just loved it.”
Listening to Sherry Ray-Von speak so fluently the language of an artist entranced, you might gather that the process is not only of a mechanical, scientific interest to her, but stands as a metaphor for the give and take of her life's experience. She invested everything she had into raising her son, who is now a 25-year-young man running a renowned contemporary art gallery named Otras Obras or “Other Works” in Tijuana, Mexico. Michael Ray-Von was asked to help build and curate this modest art space by his friend, Todd Patrick, and the two turned an old hair salon into an art gallery in a mere month. This was two years ago.
"During that whole time while I was raising my child, everything I did was for him. And he and I didn’t know the difference between spoiling and not spoiling, because it was just me and him. It was a great relationship. But when that ended—and I raised him [to go on his own and be independent]—I didn’t know what to do."
Casting, Ray-Von's current focus, is a give and take that requires an energetic investment, a deliberate destruction, followed by the re-birth of the finished piece—the phoenix, if you will, rising from the ashes and the emptiness of burning wax.
"So casting is... After you carve your wax model it goes into a steel canister and you mix a powder up that’s called investment. It’s kind of like a plaster but has more properties to it that lets it sit through nine hours of 999 degree heat in a kiln. So you put the ring inside this flask, then pour the investment over that. Then when it dries you put it in the kiln for a period of time until the wax burns out. Now there’s a space where that ring used to be, inside the investment; so in other words you’ve made a mold. And from that ring there’s actually a space that allows you to pour molten metal in there."
Ray-Von studied Interior Design and Architecture at FIDM, graduating in 1980 to pursue a career in the industry that would last her 20 years of trying to maintain an on-and-off schedule, 20 years of wonderment and unhappiness.
"I did some really big houses in Palos Verdes and Palm Springs," she said, as if trying to remember why she'd ever started, "and I worked with a lot of people that had a lot of money and that was fun, but I wasn't really happy and I didn't really know it. I just thought, that's what you're supposed to be like. I didn't really know the difference." She found herself too distracted to run the business, too free-spirited to stick with it or really pin down what she wanted to do.
Antique plumbing line, plexiglass samples, pipe insulation, laminate, cement, copper pipe, scraps of leather, rivets and old airplane parts are only several of the hundreds of materials she keeps in her studio. While wood may have been her introduction to the world of construction, and melting metal may very well be her true calling, there are well-organized shelves upon shelves of boxes containing thousands upon thousands of tiny collections of things, for great lack of a better word, that separate her dining room from her workspace.
Fifty or more cast and wooden rings that are chunky, bulky, sculptural and cannot be worn by the timid, hundreds of small leather bracelets, a two-ton arc floor lamp made of found material, low-hanging necklaces made with antique plumbing lines, a statement neck piece made of large, hand-carved beads and fishing tackle are a hundred or more projects that adhere to the statement, go big or go home. Everything you find in her studio is exaggerated, yet nothing is not used.
"I’ll go into a fishing store and spend hundreds of dollars on little tiny things that you can’t recognize. A fisherman might," she shrugged. "When you’re given the freedom in school to make whatever you want, then you’re like, ‘Well I’m just going to make the biggest thing in the world.’ So I would make everything as big as you could could go. Some of these, like this is a real bougainvillea flower, you cover it with wax and then cast it and that’s the flower. And that’s been done a million times, but what I like to do is - see how there’s pits and holes and stuff - is just let it go. Let it be that way. I don’t really want it to be perfect. To me, I think it reads better."
Ray-Von rockets through life like a raucous teenage girl with her first car, experiencing the world with a hungry curiosity that only a new kind of freedom might foster. She's adamant about her re-birth, a period of intense learning that was preceded by an unproductive slumber after her son left. Artists go through phases in one way or another, this artist in particular, sits vibrantly situated in an enduring phase of electrifying discovery.
"I was the oldest person in the class, in every class I was in," she said proudly about her lengthy stint at LBCC. "I think learning at this point in my life has been an extremely amazing experience. I mean, it compares to parenting, the most important thing I’ve ever done. Learning at this point is like magic. I think everyone should learn when they’re older. It’s a whole different experience."
Forever an off-the-cuff creator, she was the first girl, to her knowledge, to take a “boys’” class in junior high during the 1970s. She had signed up for French class and three days later, her teacher had said, “You should probably transfer out before it’s too late.” Ray-von responded with an enthusiastic “Oui, oui!” and asked her stepfather, who was dating her mom at the time and was a superintendent of the school district, if he could get her into the woodshop class.
“That connection with him made it possible for me to be the first girl in the San Diego School District, or any school district that I knew of, to take a boys’ class. It was great. And I got first place in the Del Mar Fair,” she said.
Ray-Von's creative genes come from a long line of artists in the family. Perhaps her calling, or inability to not work, to not be curious, is a way to make up for her father's lost art career. Perhaps the energy he could have placed into an art career has been transferred to Ray-Von.
"I believe had my father not been a Marine that he too would have perused art or some creative outlet," she said. Her grandmother, Mildred Chatterton fervently painted nudes, she owns 20 of them. Her great grandfather and great grandmother were both professional photographers and were the official photographers of the 1915 Worlds Fair in San Francisco.
"You have to have art in your life to really know what it’s about... My mother nurtured that in me because I didn't know, at first, but I learned. Someone that’s not an artist doesn’t really know what it’s like to live that experience. They’re thinking in their minds, in my opinion, that it’s kind of like a painting. They always think of a painting. They’re not thinking, ‘Ahh, I’m going to dig through this dirt, I’m going to make something out of garbage.’ That is a whole different experience than painting a picture and framing it and putting it in Aaron Brothers."
Sherry Ray-Von designs for no one, and by doing so, ends up designing for the art collector, the loaded fashionista and for those who have a real appreciation for architecture in all its forms, big and small. Her pieces are sculptural, to say the least, and can only be worn by someone as confident in their sense of style as Ray-Von is in her design.
When asked if she intends to reach a particular kind of customer with her work, she declines.
“Oh, no one. Absolutely no one. Because I think that I’m a sculptor and a small material... whatever. The artists I look up to make amazing, crazy, huge, funky, oh-my-god stuff that the average person would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re crazy.’ Those are the people I like and that’s who I am.”
From the girl who would rearrange all the furniture in her childhood room and house, the girl who won the Del Mar Fair for a wooden giraffe she made at 14 years old, to an interior designer and architect turned found material genius turned caster, Sherry Ray-Von harbors not one drop of regret.
"So I’m 52 and I’m just now experiencing maybe what you’ve already experienced in your life. But I know this is where I want to be, this is what I’m doing, this is who I am. So I’m excited."