Matt Toole is a big man.
He’s a former football player, and he spends his time working with molten metal and banging a hammer on an anvil. He wore a dirty black Thin Lizzy shirt to our interview, and our handshake upon first meeting was strong and decisive.
But his imposing physicality stands in contrast to the almost philosophical way that he approaches his artwork. His found object sculptural style utilizes a technique called upcycling, a term used to describe the transformation of waste into something of better quality or environmental value.
“Instead of recycling and putting back into the collective to serve another purpose than what it had previously,” Toole explained on the most recent episode of "Art on the Air," “upcycling is elevating its status in some way. My purpose is to breath new life into it, make it into a new thing, bring it to its next level.”
Now in his late 40s, Toole has spent a lifetime gathering these components for his pieces.
“I grew up playing in the salt marsh and discovering the types of materials that are around. We had a garage that was filled floor to ceiling with stuff. Subsequently I still collect stuff. There’s a beauty and an aesthetic value in things that are manufactured. A designer has some role in almost everything we make. Your glasses, that turntable, the microphone, our lighting.”
So how does Toole decide how this stuff fits together to create an object of beauty?
“I want things to be simple and elegant and have unification with the disparate parts that I find. I want them to blend together to be one unified object. I want to see it dance and move. Even if they’re static, I build them in a manner that makes them dynamic, so they have implied movement.”
This playful, almost spiritual energy pervades the works in his current exhibition of sculptures at Gallery F.A.R. (Fine Art of Recycling). But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something beyond their visual elegance. In fact, the underlying environmentalism of his process is something that Toole thinks about often, even if he doesn’t make the message overt.
“A big part of what I do is I look at our environment and how we live as humans,” he said. “And I know that by our very existence we create, we destroy, we pollute, we do all these things. I’m trying to find ways to enhance and extend and build upon our lives while here. I don’t have deep political agendas in my artwork. I didn’t think my artwork was necessarily the vehicle to scream these things. But I do think it’s important to scream about how we use our resources and how we conserve our resources. So this is a perfect match with the RC (Chatham County Resource Conservation Education Center).”
The exhibit opens Sept. 6 at Gallery F.A.R and will be up until Nov. 19. Toole recognizes that as the pieces remain out in the elements, there’s a good chance that they may change. In fact, most of the parts that he used to construct them had already begun to deteriorate in one way or another before he even put them together.
“I like the idea of working with the element of time, so that things continually change. They move; they build up; they break down. I can see works of art that never end. They just perpetually grow and grow.”
But more than just liking the idea, Toole has embraced the concept as a critical part of the way he works.
“Sometimes I’m along for the ride. I’m not driving the whole time. We don’t always have to know.”
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m.on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at wruu.org. Next week’s guest is current Sulfur Studios’ On::View Artist in Residence Joseph Malson.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, co-host of the radio show "Art on the Air" on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and executive director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.