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Artist Probes the Mind in Bronze, Steel, Iron

Sculpting: Ojai's Ted Gall crafts imaginative pieces in a style all his own.

July 24, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like sentries in the shadow of the Topatopas, the metal men appear along a narrow driveway, emerge from a clump of trees and finally come to rest atop pedestals surrounding Ted Gall's Ojai studio.

Inside, Gall is on a ladder amid a shower of orange sparks, welding the skeleton of his newest and biggest commercial creation--a trio of 9-foot-tall figures, mounted on 2,000-pound wheels.

When complete, the stainless-steel sculptures will stand on a 55-foot-wide base in front of a motorcycle museum in Birmingham, Ala.

"I have been working on this in my mind for six months now," Gall said. "It opens the door to do bigger pieces."

Gall is a nationally known sculptor with a penchant for the fantastic. His latest works focus on men of steel, bronze or iron, but he's also recognized for his series of intricate bronze heads. About 8 inches tall, they open to reveal faces, which in turn open to show inner workings depicting the mind. Some have arks on top, or sea anemones or gorillas. Inside there might be DNA molecules, keys, tiny figurines or computer chips.

"I think everyone puts a mask on," said the shaggy-haired Gall. "We want to be somebody else. We try to change but we remain the same."

He's just sold a major piece to George Barber, 60, of Birmingham, who is building what he says is the nation's largest motorcycle museum, with 760 bikes. Barber is a longtime fan and collector of Gall's work. Both men declined to say how much the latest creation costs.

"I made him promise to one day sit down and tell me what was going through his mind when he made those heads," said Barber, who owns 70 of them. "You can't really describe them. You can describe the exterior of the head, but how do you describe what is inside?"

Gerd Koch, an artist and curator at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center at Cal State Channel Islands, said Gall's work stands out.

"It's much more interesting and powerful than other bronze metal sculptures being developed here and nationally because of that personal point of view," Koch said. "Too often people try to emulate Rodin or Degas. His whole scope and his facility with style, symbolism and metaphor is very unique."

In "Voyager," a bronze man stands with a boat around his waist. Masks are strewn about the bottom of the vessel. Each marks a discarded period of life.

In "The Strategist," a man stands up to his neck in a sort of chessboard. The sculpture moves, but every turn puts him in jeopardy.

"The concept of man striving has been with me for 15 or 20 years," said the Chicago-born Gall. "In the beginning they were blocks of steel--part man, part machine. Now they have become more human than machine."

His garage-like studio echoes with jazz and soul music--Al Green, Ray Charles and John Coltrane compete with the clanging of metal. Statues and busts hover everywhere like actors in a frozen play.

The place is littered with the detritus of a restless mind. There are open anatomy books, a discarded bronze arm, a fractured head and Polaroids of the human form. Gall illustrates his ideas, makes small wax sculptures and, if he likes them, casts them in bronze. One of his heads can sell for $1,000, and bigger works go for much more.

"An artist is like a big sponge--you keep sucking up ideas and information and you can keep squeezing them out," said Gall, who enjoys science fiction and fantasy. "My ideas come in quick flashes. Then I sit down and sketch them out, boil them down to sketches. Some ideas are just junk."

The concept of the bronze heads came from the Statue of Liberty.

"I got the idea when I saw people walking around up in the head," he said.

In a field where few flourish, Gall says his work ethic and willingness to take on jobs other artists won't have made him successful.

Donna Granata, executive director of Focus on the Masters, an arts education program, is doing a documentary on Gall and his newest sculpture.

"His imagination is limitless, and he puts it down in physical form," Granata said. "You walk through his studio and see his themes are so universal. I look at it and say, 'Hey, that's me.' "

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