Tire shreds become art

Sculptor William Knight , with "Whirlwind I," has an exhibit, "Out of Context," opening Oct. 19 in Hamilton, N.J. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Sculptor William Knight , with "Whirlwind I," has an exhibit, "Out of Context," opening Oct. 19 in Hamilton, N.J. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 15, 2013

William Knight can still see the flashing lights of the state police car and the trooper's bemused look when he tried to explain why he'd stopped along I-295 near the Rancocas Woods exit.

"I said to myself, 'Remain calm, tell him you're an artist and that you're collecting raw material for your artwork,' " recalled Knight, of Burlington City, who had been picking up shredded tire treads along the shoulder.

The trooper "just rolled his eyes and gave me the benefit of the doubt," he said.

To most people, the tire fragments are simple refuse, awaiting disposal by state transportation workers.

In Knight's hands, the rubber and rusted steel belts become sculptures, exuding a sense of movement and music. They draw the eye with fluid shapes, casting delicate shadows like the spindly branches of leafless trees in winter.

In his Mount Holly studio, the full-time artist coaxes the roadside castoffs into imaginative works that have gradually gained the attention of the art world, leading to shows at the Knapp Gallery in Philadelphia and the Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood.

This month, his works will be exhibited at the Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre park and museum in Hamilton Township, Mercer County. The exhibit - called "Out of Context" - will be open to the public from Oct. 19 through April 13.

"I hope someone looking at it would see excitement and drama," said the quiet-spoken Knight, 66, who has been working with the medium for about a decade. "That's quite the opposite of my personality."

Tires are not commonly used by other artists, at least not the way Knight has used them, said Virginia Oberlin Steel, curator of exhibitions at the Grounds for Sculpture.

"He's very influenced by music and dance," she said. "He captures the whole sense of movement in space.

"You can see it in the vertical pieces, with the black rubber and shiny wire woven together," said Steel, who chose 21 pieces for the one-person show. "His work is abstract, and very fluid."

For Knight, the creative process starts where the rubber meets the road: on I-295 in Burlington County and I-95 in Delaware County.

He's been stopped by police three times while collecting his raw material, and recalls once "racing just ahead of a Department of Transportation worker" who was picking up the rubber refuse.

"I take about five or 10 percent of what I find," he said. "The more neglected the highway, the more fertile it is.

"I can tell if I think [a tread] has a future for what I do," he said. "If it's fresh kill - meaning a recently exploded tire - then [the steel belts] are not rusted. I like it either not rusted or very heavily rusted."

In his studio last week, Knight cast a long extension cord to the floor to make a point. The jumbled wire had no artistic form.

"This is boring. The difference between this and that," he said, turning to graceful sculptures around him, "is me. These are not just a tangled mess from the roadside."

His studio holds a large inventory of tire shards of many shapes and sizes. Each piece is cleaned with vinegar and baking soda to remove the smell before he works his magic.

Knight spends months on each sculpture, using pliers, wire cutters, and other tools to combine the odd-shaped bits with nuts, bolts, aluminum-wire frameworks, even a steel-rimmed wooden wagon wheel.

He's also branched off into other materials, using filaments and electrodes from inside large lightbulbs to create smaller works.

The interplay of the materials and spaces around them are always crucial. The delicate balance can mean success or failure.

Among his works are two he calls Whirlwind I and Whirlwind V - both swirling strands of tire bits combined with wire that hang from the ceiling. Three other works - Whirlwind II,III, and IV - were not successful. "They died," the artist said. "I learned from them."

Knight is a Miami native who has lived in New Jersey for about 30 years, currently in the former home of Ulysses S. Grant.

Knight and co-owner David Arnold, an opera singer and Temple University professor of voice, have restored the Italianate house over several years. Grant lived there with his family when he wasn't fighting in the field. The house is filled with art, including his oil and encaustic works.

But his sculptures - using tire fragments - have been his passion in more recent years. He's completed scores of them. His largest, dubbed Horizontal Fugue, is about 18 feet long and nine feet high, filling an entire wall of his studio.

Another work, Performance, was inspired by Arnold, who plays Amonasro in the opera Aida. "He makes his entrance in the famous triumphal scene in an impressive costume," Knight said. "Surely that was somewhere in my mind."

Last week, many of the artist's works were carefully packed up and moved by truck to the Grounds for Sculpture, where the exhibit is being assembled.

"Sculptural qualities such as positive and negative shapes, rhythm, balance, and composition are the sculptor's friends and goals from Greek days," Knight said. "I'm just using unusual materials to explore and strive toward the successful execution of those principals."


ecolimore@phillynews.com

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