Walking on the tiered layers of rebar at the Wilshire Grand Center construction site is a challenge, especially when wearing the heavy shoes required for safety. You have to watch every step, looking down to make sure that each foot is firm and the body balanced before moving forward. The rough edges of the rods are a brown, grey and rust color mix that blends through the 20-foot long steel. You see and feel the ordered coherence of an enduring structure.
There is a sense in which the ability to notice, rather than to merely look, is part of an artist’s skill. In his drawing classes, the 19th century British art critic and writer John Ruskin taught that noticing the environment around you in a more rigorous way was something that could be learned, a way of thoughtfully moving through the world that he believed need not be limited to the “cultured” and “educated.”
Ruskin (he is a featured character in the recent movie Mr. Turner, about the painter J.M.W. Turner) taught drawing classes for laborers at the Working Men’s College in London, one of Britain’s earliest adult education institutions.
I thought of Ruskin after I met Sefi Edery at the Wilshire Grand site. Edery is an Iron Worker and an artist. In the construction world he is a “Rodbuster” who works with the long steel rods that provide the internal strength for concrete walls and floors. It is literally backbreaking work. But at home in Echo Park, Edery talks about how painting keeps him at peace and provides an avenue for exploring his inner world.
“There are a lot of portals in my paintings,” he says, “images of entrances and exits that for me symbolize the different directions that a life can take or a way of traveling to an entirely different emotional place.”
Talking with him and his fellow Ironworkers explodes the easy and destructive clichés about “blue collar workers,” “hard hats” or “unskilled labor” that dominate our media landscape. If a character in a film or on TV wears a hard hat, more often than not they are also depicted as having a hard head.
Edery sees the crossing rods of rebar at work as beautiful, evoking the weave of a shirt or the tensile strength of human muscle. Ruskin, who often described nature in psychological terms (clouds were “timid” and mountains “bold”) encouraged his students to cultivate that emotionally descriptive approach as a way of being more precise about what they were looking at.
A number of Edery’s workmates have purchased his paintings. They have also analyzed the colors and intensity of his work over sandwiches and energy drinks at lunch, 30 stories up on the building’s core. For Edery, being able to utilize the materials he works with in an imaginative way and to explore those ideas with other workers provides some respite from the daily punishment his body endures.
There has been a long tradition of philosophers, labor activists and public intellectuals who have advocated for less of a gap between “art” and “work” — the diminution of craft traditions and the structure of work are issues that are fought over, not given by nature. They have pointed out that the human desire for creativity could only emerge with leisure time and the economic ability to think about more than the immediate struggles of daily life.
Edery paints to release himself from what he describes as the “inner prison” that at times bedevils him. His union, Iron Workers Local 416, is also there to remind him that there is an external world of work that can become like a prison if you don’t fight for a measure of freedom on the job.
John Ruskin, who abhorred the emerging industrial world of Victorian England, wrote that art can be used to praise the things that we love, even if they are only a shell or a stone. Sefi Edery is constructing a building and creating art, and sometimes mixing the two. He says he loves both worlds, perhaps as an expression of his values and aspirations.
Kelly Candaele is producing and directing a film on the three-year process of building the Wilshire Grand Center. It’s currently titled, Head, Hand & Heart – Craftsmanship at Work.