TRUMANSBURG, NY — When I arrived at artist James “Jay” Seaman’s Trumansburg studio and home, he was negotiating the transport of a large metal bison that weighed nearly a ton. Its skin and fur comprised hundreds of individual steel pieces cut and welded together; its eyes were made of spoons.
As Seaman, 52, stood next to his latest creation, a customer commission, I asked the inevitable. Does he always work on such a monumental scale?
“There’s always people that ask me if you do anything smaller…and the answer is ‘No, I don’t,’” Seaman said.
Almost all of Seaman’s work is wrought large, and if you frequent Ithaca, you’re familiar with Seaman’s sculptures, even if you don’t know it.
From the landmark dragonfly atop The Jewelbox to the rooster in front of the Gateway Commons to the lizard mosaics downtown, Seaman’s head-turning art is a familiar and stunning sight throughout Ithaca.
Seaman grew up near Taughannock State Park, and has been an artist his entire life. He was initially a self-taught woodworker. Then as now, birds are a favorite subject.
“They can put themselves in positions that are so interesting…They have the ability to suggest motion,” he said. “I think the fact that they’re so dynamic is attractive to me.”
Seaman did so many wooden birds that by the time he was 30 he decided to learn welding from local blacksmith Durand Van Doren to make the birds’ legs more durable. Constructing the birds wholly out of metal was a turning point.
Oftentimes, the fascinating ways birds position themselves can push the materials to the limit, he said.
“It’s nice to work with metal because it’s very forgiving. You can bend it or cut it, or replace a piece, hit it with a hammer or smash it, grind it some more if it’s not working out.”
Among others, he has constructed herons, flamingos, and several bald eagles, including one with a 21-foot wingspan on prominent display at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.
His process usually begins with the smaller pieces that make up the whole: whether that’s feathers, scales or fur. From sheets of stainless steel, he will plasma cut buckets and buckets worth of feathers, either at his home studio or his secondary studio in Rochester.
“You’ve got to cut enough pieces to have a huge pile before you even begin to put them together. You don’t want to be making pieces as you’re building it,” he said.
From there, he will shape the individual feathers by hand with a hammer an anvil, pounded out to the piece’s specifications.
For a sculpture as large as the bison, the process may take around six weeks.
Seaman usually works on multiple projects, always cutting feathers but also challenging himself to try new things: blowing glass pieces for an abstract flower with the help of Zack Lorenzetti, or using eyes by glass artist Sean Kennedy for a multifaceted Janus-like stone sculpture.
When he’s experimenting with more contemporary art, he can use the material’s natural properties and follow its lead, like the statue reminiscent of an orange peel in the Jewelbox’s parking lot.
“We twist a lot of the pieces of metal and whatever direction it’s going in, you kind of have to go with what the steel wants to do. But that’s the only time. If it’s a bird, the bird has got to look like a bird.”
While much of Seaman’s work is on commission, a lot of it is speculative. The kiwi bird formerly outside of Trumansburg’s Salmon Pottery Gallery is one such product.
“You do something, you don’t have any parameters, you do whatever you want and then you put it into a gallery and you hope someone buys it.”
Seaman’s artwork is displayed in galleries all over New York State, and in Cape Cod, where a full-size whale sculpture breaches in and out of the grass outside the gallery.
Making a living as an artist full time, he said, is about three Ds: determination, discipline and dedication. There is a lot of waiting for commissions to come in or gallery owners to call, but in between there is the constant push to be creative.
“You just have to keep on believing in yourself and working hard, putting in a full day’s work whether you feel like it or you’re tired. Don’t space out and get distracted and say ‘I don’t feel very creative right now.’ You can still make feathers. You know you’re going to have to have feathers.”
Seaman credits his family for his success: his uncle provided all the materials for his home studio; family members and close friends gave him his first big commissions. Even much of the metal Seaman uses comes by way of family: his father owned Energenics, a Naples, Fla. company that made industrial size washing machines, and they send him scrap to recycle into art.
“It’s so important to have the support of family, of loved ones that are rooting for you,” he said.
View more of Seaman’s artwork on his website: http://jamesseaman.com/