Michael Wiley’s sculptures are not what anyone — including Wiley — would call traditional. They are a curious amalgam of the found, the natural and the man made: part timeless and part utterly transient, begging to be touched, picked up and examined in the hand, but without any overt meanings.
At least not meanings the Ewing-based sculptor will lead you into. What you think when you see his work is up to you. If you find it profound, then so be it. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. But you’ll get no extra help from the retiring Wiley, who would much rather have his work do the talking than listen to himself prattle on about what it is for him to be an artist.
Lawrence Cappiello, executive director of the Arts Guild of New Jersey in Rahway, offered this analogy: Wiley’s use of natural materials, found metals and support materials like string and wax are “like the way a painter varies his brush strokes,” like blotting on thick gobs or slipping the brush across a canvas in wispy strokes.
Cappiello helped select some pieces of Wiley’s sculpture for the Baker’s Dozen exhibit at the AGNJ, which runs through March 12. The exhibit features 13 artists of various styles, from painters to sculptors, free of the themes or directions found in many of the guild’s shows. Cappiello says that Wiley’s work, with its spare feel and uncomplicated, up-to-you-to-decide attitude fit well with the largely 2-D collection for the show.
“They’re pleasant to look at,” he said of Wiley’s works. “They might make you ponder why he put certain things together, or maybe you’ll just like the way it’s arranged.”
Indeed, Wiley’s works offer a lot to ponder. The artist himself hates pigeonholing himself as a sculptor of found materials, yet he makes no effort to hide that materials and objects reach out to him when he comes across them.
“I love materials,” Wiley said.
And he means all kinds of materials. Pieces of old, rusted metal are a favorite, as are fabrics, stones, sticks and vines. And if that’s too normal for you, there’s this: “I have a lot of birds’ nests I’ve collected.”
Wiley, 67, also doesn’t care to label himself an artist.
“I make stuff,” he said. “I make the pieces because I have to.”
Over the years, he’s run dry, run out and lost his way from time to time, and yet he can’t help himself from crafting “very non-functional pieces” inspired by nature and the earth. What they say and how you take them, of course, is entirely up to you.
“I’d rather not lead anybody,” Wiley said. “I’d rather let their creativity guide them.”
If Wiley’s perspective sounds like that of someone who was dyed in the wool of art all his life, you’re right. Both his parents were artists and Wiley went on to teach the subject in his native Jersey City school system for a year before heading off to his favorite city on earth: San Francisco.
Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1960s and returned to the east coast to earn an M.F.A. in sculpture from Pratt Institute in 1973, two years after his first son was born. He wanted to teach art in college and applied for various positions, but college salaries then were not what they are today, even in 1970s money. Wiley worked for the U.S. Postal Service between schooling and ran across an offer for a full-time job that paid better than teaching and afforded him great benefits.
“I said ‘Let me do it for a year,’” he says. “I did it for a year for 26 years.”
Wiley made his main career in the postal inspector’s office and retired from federal law enforcement (he fought fraud, money laundering and a host of other federal crimes) at age 53. This was around the time when Wiley shifted from northern to central New Jersey, mainly because this is when he met his second wife, Marsha.
She was a customer of a business acquaintance in New York. A writer, dance teacher, and all-around creative force who owns Glen Roc Gallery Picture Frame Shop in West Trenton, she became Wiley’s biggest supporter and fellow artistic sojourner.
Wiley settled in Ewing and immediately dug the vibe Trenton’s arts community emits. He became friends with some of the area’s top creatives, such as musicians Tommy Grice and the late Clifford Adams. Together, the Wileys have built “good, creative lives together,” he said.
Marsha has also helped steer him back toward his “inner necessity” to create.
“Back in 2007 I hit a point where I just wasn’t coming up with stuff,” Wiley said.
He was out to dinner with Marsha, talking about his lack of output, when she reminded him that his father had recently died, and that had probably sapped his creativity.
Wiley knew she was right, and, inspired by his wife and a writer he’d heard had beaten writer’s block by forcing himself to just sit down and write every day, even if it meant just transcribing items from magazine, he set out to create something, anything, every day for 30 days.
“I forced myself into it, and God, it was marvelous,” he said.
At the end, Wiley called the endeavor his “30-day Project+3 — because you can’t just shut it off. I still have five or six pieces from it.”
Two years later, Wiley got involved in an exhibit at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College with a collection he called “Sticks and Stones.” The gist of the exhibit was to create pieces of touchable art, and Wiley crafted pieces of banded sticks that invited the viewer to place nearby stones between areas of tension.
“My pieces are out there to be touched,” he said. “They’re very tactile.”
Wiley was pleased with “Sticks and Stones.” Then, he and Marsha, who are frequent travelers, went to Tanzania. Seeing the huts used by Massai herders struck Wiley with the sense of wonder only available to creatives who are engaged in their work.
Wiley is all for inspiration, but he says that inspiration “must find you working.” In other words, an artist—or a maker of “stuff,” like Wiley identifies himself to be—is best inspired when he is already in the mind of being a working artist. Inspiration does not fall out of the sky and conjugate with your brain.
“You will only get inspired if you’re working,” he said. “It has to find you.”
Wiley had only one thing to say when he got home and looked at his collection of pieces from the MCCC exhibit.
“’Marsh, my ‘Sticks and Stones,’ is so vanilla,’” he said.
He had seen and felt how the Massai used natural materials in architecture and design, and he was compelled to deconstruct his pieces, bury parts of them to weather the wood, char parts of wood to get them to feel just right and reassemble them.
It’s not unusual for Wiley to reexamine his works, nor is it unusual for him to spend years with materials he feels connected to before finding out what they’re saying to him. In fact, one piece in particular, “Steps,” took several years. He’d found the metal pieces somewhere and put them together into a sculpture, but he knew he wasn’t finished. There it sat, for years, until one day Marsha was cleaning out some old things and found a baby’s shoe. The literal topper for the piece, and the one that made it whole.
Over these past five or six years, Wiley has moved away from manipulating the materials he uses and allows them to more often stand on their own. And his approach affords him a luxury some artists never get.
“For me, it’s never a rush,” Wiley said. “I’m not doing it to make money. It’s always exciting when somebody buys a piece, but I’m more interested in what causes you to say ‘I want to have that in my home.’”