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Island sculptor Ned Smyth creates powerful works inspired by found objects

A shell, or stone, twig or other bit of nature may lie on a beach and remain unchanged for a long time. Yet once picked up by a discerning beachcomber, it may become a household ornament or part of a collection.

In the hands of an artist like Ned Smyth, it can be transformed and translated into a new form, echoing its original appearance but becoming a work of art.

Sculptor Ned Smyth in his Island studio. (Credit: Lorin Klaris)

His Island studio, 40 by 100 feet, is home to some of these tiny bits of Island collectibles, as well as some enormous monoliths he’s fashioned in their likeness, creating Stonehenge-like structures that may eventually find a home in a museum or public space.

Giant sculptures are Mr. Smyth’s interpretation of the shapes found in nature. (Credit: Lorin Klaris)

In the same vein, Mr. Smyth’s life might have turned out differently if he were not picked up while hitchhiking in New Jersey in the 1970s by two “guys with weird accents.” They turned out to be Cajuns heading to New York, where Ned Smyth found himself in a world populated by artists, musicians and chefs based at a restaurant.

“They put together a band from New Orleans,” he said, in downtown New York City in the pre-SoHo days. “Philip Glass was playing the piano,” he said, of the American composer. There were parties, dancing and plenty of drugs.

The restaurant, FOOD, was created by Gordon Matta-Clark, an avant garde artist who had studied architecture, but instead practiced “anarchitecture,” which sometimes involved cutting entire houses in half.

Mr. Smyth recalled going with Mr. Matta-Clark to a building in the South Bronx, where they were cutting holes in the floor when the police arrived. An officer demanded, “What are you doing?”

“Demolition,” Mr. Matta-Clark replied calmly, evidently enough of an explanation to suit the cops and move them along, to Mr. Smyth’s relief.

Mr. Smyth had struggled in school for years because he was dyslexic, but had a strong athletic career. Finally, Kenyon College, he said “changed my life” when he studied art for the first time.

A formative part of his artistic development came when he worked for a time as a youth in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, casting concrete runways for an airport. “I became seduced by cement,” he said, “by its alchemy.”

Today, he casts 2-by-4 planks out of cement for use in artistic installations.

Like many Shelter Island artists, he finds inspiration in his environment. “I’d walk my dog on the beaches and pick up stones,” he said. “Pretty soon my whole floor was covered with stones.”

Items collected from local beaches are kept in the studio, serving as inspiration. (Credit: Lorin Klaris)

He would study the stones and how they’d relate to each other, particularly fascinated by two that resembled male and female torsos. He would take those stones — the originals, no bigger than his hands, to his studio — and reproduce them in enormous models.

The process involves scanning the item, producing 3D models — versions of the original shape carved out of foam — then cast in bronze. A foundry near Princeton, N.J., where the late sculptor Seward Johnson’s lifesize human statues were produced, is where Mr. Smyth’s sculptures take their final shape.

Apart from his sculpture, he devotes time to teaching, having headed the SUNY Stony Brook undergraduate and graduate sculpture department and later teaching at the Ross School, which his two sons attended. He recalled some exceptional teaching moments, such as when a student produced some outstanding models of Los Angeles gas stations, revealing a previously hidden talent. “That’s why you do it,” he said.

His work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshorn Museum, PS1, the Venice Biennale, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, 112 Greene Street and Holly Solomon Gallery.