Christina Sporrong feels the weight, heavy as steel. Three gigs cancelled in the past week.No more Paseo Festival, where she was going to show her huge metal heron sculpture with its moving head and rigs to support aerial performers. No more Berlin with “Flybrary.”
The 40-foot-tall, 18,000-pound human face, which doubles as a walk-in library where you can read a book on free thought or the Earth, was once alive with humans at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada and now it lays disassembled in mega-pieces amongst the sage at Sporrong and artist Christian Ristow’s mesa studio.
It joins a host of iron ghosts — waiting, like Ristow’s sculpture of a large hand, with joints kinetically intact to crush cars with an audience-controlled remote, for example. Over the years, that piece has taken the couple to almost every continent. Now some hoses on it are starting to sun rot.
With events disappearing into the haze of another smoky September day, which melds into the hollow haze of this past year and a half — Go! No! Go! No! Go! No! No! No! — Sporrong and Ristow have done some artistic reevaluation.
Ristow — a machinist since he was a kid (back then motorizing cardboard dinosaurs he’d crafted) — has bridged into clay sculpture, oil painting. He’d considered painting back in his 30s in L.A., but stuck to special effects in film and building combat robots. Lately he’s been watching painting fundamentals YouTube videos, going to a local figure drawing class and battling his insecurities about putting an image on a canvas.
“When I get an idea for a sculpture, it’s simple for me to say, ‘Great!’ And, boom! Within an hour or a day I’m working on it. There are far fewer mental blocks,” says Ristow, who likens his style to narrative-oriented magical realism. “Painting is like therapy. I’m understanding myself better through it.”
Sporrong is more prone to color, gesture and feeling. She describes herself as “an idea lady with old world skills.” The hot, dirty work of welding and blacksmithing are Sporrong’s “happy place.”
Her focus has shifted from the past decade’s festival-heavy circuit to teaching at UNM, and Vista Grande High School (where she helped build a metal shop and installed a forge), and, her favorite, at her home workshop leading women-specific classes, demystifying the intimidation factor in the male-dominated field. (This workshop where both she and Ristow work is filled top to bottom with long steel pieces and welding helmets way up high and furnaces and past prototypes — y’all seen the railing at World Cup? — and even surprise mannequins.)
“I want to do public art,” says Sporrong, who moved to New Mexico in 1996 and started her shop, Spitfire Forge, a couple years later. “The future for me is making work that is accessible to everyone.”
The mechanical sculpture, sponsored by Arroyo Seco Live and The Paseo Project, was on free display in Seco between August 2020 and May 2021 in response to the pandemic. It was the couple’s — both in their “late 40s plus a few years” — first time working on a sculpture together, and one specially-built for Taos.
As soon as the project was proposed, Sporrong’s ideas — many of which come intuitively from dreams — flowed fast: “It should be something that holds people’s emotions! We’ll use fire as a catharsis to purge the effects of COVID!”
The piece is two hulking hands with slots to insert community-written notes — expressing grief, joy, fear, etc. — loosely hugging a metal and glass core. In a public demonstration once COVID restrictions had been lifted, these notes were fuel for a fire, the heat activating the mechanical opening of the hands, and a cheering celebration from onlookers.
“We were so proud it worked,” says Ristow. “There was a certain element of chance. There wasn’t a button to push and it goes. It was related to gravity and weight and burn rate. We didn’t know when it would open.”
“The universe was looking down on us that night,” says Sporrong, whose light eyes remain bright despite the dark, tenuous theme of these past couple years.
And, so, who knows for now? Sporrong has learned to put question marks after art plans. “England?” She does what she can do: Gets her 10-year-old son to school, does some architectural design work, prepares for upcoming classes, and tries not to freak out about the climate crisis while Ristow tinkers with the motor in an old rust-red International Scout he’s hoping to sell off, or perfects the angered woman’s face in his painting, or struggles to read “The Master and His Emissary.” They do what makes them spark, which is make big hard stuff spark in the workshop, but less so, since there’s nowhere to show it.
“When you make stuff, it should be meaningful and done with the most care and love and intention,” says Sporrong. “Otherwise, why waste all this material? I think about this a lot working in metal, which is expensive and not the best medium for the Earth. I have a responsibility to do it right and well.”