Wally Warren's Roadside Attractions
Wally Warren has been described variously as a folk artist, a faux folk artist, an outsider artist, an earth artist, an environmental artist, an assemblage artist, a found object artist, and a recycle artist. He just thinks of himself as a sculptor.
In 2011, Warren had a rare institutional exhibition of his colorful, eccentric constructions at Unity College’s Leonard R. Craig Memorial Gallery. Entitled The Art of Recycle, the Unity show featured many of the same works to be found anytime in Warren’s art-strewn yard along Route 154 in rural Ripley. There are whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. And there are the “Cities of Dreams” for which Warren is best known, urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” said Warren of his gaudy assemblages when I stopped by a visit last week. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
Warren traces his obsession with making things to his boyhood in Lincoln, Maine, the paper mill town where his mother ran a truck stop. Walking past the Eastern Fine Paper mill on his way to school each day, young Wallace Warren became fascinated with the machinery and the process of manufacturing.
When the Warrens moved into Bangor in 1959, Wally gravitated to the rail yards, having become enamored of trains both real and models. His first art instruction, he says, came from model railroading magazines that offered detailed instructions for constructing and painting miniature landscapes.
“I was building model cities out of scrap wood when I was thirteen or fourteen.”
In 1964, after graduating from Bangor High School, Warren commuted up the road to the University of Maine intending to study civil engineering, perhaps to build real roads and cities. He quickly discovering that he had little aptitude for the required math, but he was good at imagining and building, so he switched his major to art. Though he dropped out in 1968, Warren returned to Orono in 1973 to complete his degree, studying with artists Vincent Hartgen, Michael Lewis, and Ron Ghiz.
In the late 1970s, Warren began dividing his time between his native Maine and the city of Seattle where his older brother David lived at the time.
“My real art education was going to Seattle,” Warren says. “Seattle was a goldmine for me. They embraced me in part because I was not from there. I was seen as this Puritan from Maine.”
In Seattle, Warren showed his sculpture at two of the city’s best contemporary galleries, Traver/Sutton Gallery and MIA Gallery. One of the highlights of the West Coast art career was a glowing review of his 1989 MIA show in Art In America. Seattle’s leading art critic Matthew Kangas wrote that Warren “makes art that combines northeastern Yankee pragmatism with northwestern ecological sensitivity.”
Warren never really left Maine. In 1970, he purchased five boggy acres in Ripley for $550 and built a cabin there in 1972.
“Forty years later,” he says, “I’m still here.”
In 1994, with Seattle becoming too expensive and the art scene he had been part of disintegrating, Warren returned to Maine for good. Something of an outsider even in his native state, he has struggled to make a living as an artist. He has shown sporadically at Central Maine Artists Gallery in Skowhegan, North Light Gallery in Millinocket, and both June Fitzpatrick and Aucocsico Gallery in Portland.
Warren has also created Percent for Art projects for the Burton M. Cross Office Building at the Statehouse in Augusta and for several schools, most recently the new Ridge View Community School in Dexter.
Warren lives a frugal but highly productive existence in Ripley, constantly adding to his outré oeuvre with marvelous art objects fashioned from materials scavenged at the Dexter and Harmony transfer stations.
“At 66,” Warren writes, “I continue working towards a dream of resurrection and integration…of making my vision increasingly accessible to all members of society. My work is inclusive. It takes its form from the popular icons and electronic gadgets consumed by a mass culture, and in turn is fed back to the people through my own metamorphosis.”
A mainstay of the local arts scene, Warren makes experimental music on experimental instruments with his great friends artists Abby Shahn and James Fangbone of Solon, performs with the West Athens improvisational theatre group In Spite of Life Players, and participates in the annual open studio tour sponsored by the Wesserunsett Arts Council.
“There’s a lot of freedom to do things out here,” says Warren of the creativity fostered of the hardscrabble life of central Maine.
On April 15, Warren plans a public launching of his boat sculptures, many of which stay afloat with wine corks, in the pond on his property. The launching is to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
This profile is one of 100 that will eventually be published in Maine Art New: Contemporary Art in Maine, 1990 to Now.