Ben Sostrom encourages animal collaboration on 'These Are Not For You'
The artist's new show at Studios on High Gallery features wooden pieces that function as prompts for local wildlife
Over the past year, as many local businesses shuttered, reduced hours or pivoted to online and curbside retail models due to COVID-19 concerns, artist and woodworker Ben Sostrom stayed as busy as ever at his day job helping customers at Beechwold Hardware in Clintonville. And while Sostrom was grateful for the work, and for the steady customer base, it also made for an anxious year as he managed the safety concerns of himself and others while working long hours.
“It was the craziest experience I have ever been through. … I hit a point where I was having a very difficult time being around people and processing everything. I was coming home and just collapsing immediately,” said Sostrom, who also attended Black lives matter protests after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which led to more anxiety. “I had a lot of friends who got hurt very badly in the protests. … And I saw a lot of people in my life who reacted to the protests in ways that I guess I should have expected but didn't entirely.”
Initially, during all this upheaval, Sostrom only made one piece of art: a tiny, 1-inch wooden box. Eventually, though, he re-engaged his creative side and channeled that energy into a new project: a birdhouse for the apartment he and his husband share on the Walhalla Ravine in Clintonville. “It was a relief, and it was really interesting to watch the ways [the birds] used it, because they used it in a lot of ways I didn't expect,” Sostrom said. “The birds would use the flat cedar roof to hammer shells, like a tool. They'd get up there and start cracking the seeds open.”
He watched as the squirrels, over a period of months, used ingenuity, determination and some flying leaps to get to the food source. All this wildlife interaction with his wooden creations gave him an idea: “What if I did pieces not only for animals, but also designed to prompt them to collaborate — to prompt them to do something interesting with the piece?”
Sostrom’s idea comes to fruition in a new exhibition on view now at Studios on High Gallery in the Short North, “These Are Not For You,” featuring five pieces meant for the outdoors and five for indoors.
As a kid, Sostrom learned the ins and outs of woodworking from his grandfather, spending hours alongside him in the elder’s garage workshop. In college, he pursued two wildly different interests: astrophysics and theater, which originated in Sostrom's skill at building props but eventually lead to professional acting gigs with theater companies in town.
It’s the prop design, though, that reactivated Sostrom’s love of working with his hands in the last several years, along with a renewed focused on Buddhism. Those spiritual principles worked their way into Sostrom’s first solo art show, “beingnonbeing,” at Studios on High in 2019. While that exhibition was fairly abstract, “These Are Not For You” is more functional and threaded with a sense of play and whimsy.
For the indoor pieces, made of Japanese washi paper and various types of wood, Sostrom thought about the various insects that make their way into his 1920s-era apartment to hibernate in curtains, books and light fixtures during the winter: box elder bugs, ladybugs, stinkbugs. Rather than ridding his home of what many consider to be pests, Sostrom’s sculptures invite them in, providing crevices and folds for the insects.
The five outdoor sculptures are all intended to be used and modified by wildlife. Sostrom built the base for “Metta: Salt Lick” out of reclaimed apple wood, a dense, brittle wood that required multiple tools and nearly led to the artist throwing his back out twice. On the apple base sits a moveable arm of black locust with two salt spheres on each end, which Sostrom formed out of a huge block of trace mineral salt.
To see the sculpture in action, Sostrom’s friend hosted “Metta: Salt Lick” in his yard for about a month, mounting a motion-sensitive trail camera nearby to see how various animals interacted with the piece. In a video that plays next to the installation at Studios on High, viewers can watch squirrels, birds, raccoons and deer manipulate the arm and salt spheres, though the deer were more gentle than Sostrom anticipated, barely moving the rotating arm for weeks. “We discovered they're very delicate with things,” he said. “But as they lick the spheres, and as they get rained on and birds and other animals come up and use them, [the salt spheres] slowly erode and get swirls in them. Other patterns form, and then they crystallize at the base to form stalactites.”
Sostrom also made a home for squirrels (“Outpost: Squirrel Drey”) out of black locust and bamboo. “It's designed so that the squirrels can pull [pieces] out if they want and modify it. As the materials deteriorate, they can add things or take them away,” he said. “The structure and the look of it will change as they add local materials and alter it to fit their needs.”
"Spire: Carpenter Bee Nursery" provides a home of cedar spires for carpenter bees, which collaborate by burrowing into the wood to create a new, altered sculpture. For “Thicket: Bird Refuge,” Sostrom took inspiration from Clintonville walks to Cup O Joe, where he and his husband would witness a large bush consistently filled with a flurry of bird activity. In Sostrom’s version of a thicket, staves made from ipe wood are topped with Irish ivy fruits filled with tiny, jingling bells. “As the birds land and move around and do their thing, they'll create a sort of accompaniment to their own chirping music,” he said.
“Varada: Open Feeder,” which came about after a chunk of a felled black locust branch fortuitously resembled the shape of a hand, takes the opposite approach from birdfeeders that purposefully keep squirrels and other animals away. “It's designed to deliberately not block any animal from coming to feed at it,” Sostrom said.
That open-ended aspect of the work has provided a joyful, creative spark for Sostrom during a long, heavy year. “The most fun thing about working on these pieces was imagining what the animals would do, and what they would do that would surprise me,” he said.