Friday, May 29, 2009

May Interview: Making a Living and a Life with Artist Rochelle Ford

One thing that I love to do in the springtime is go on walks. Waverley Street is an especially beautiful walk because as you head toward downtown Palo Alto, the road begins to wind and curve - I am told that this is where the name Waverley comes from. On one such walk, I stopped everything I was doing and thinking because I saw this:

It's a bright, energetic, artistic house smack in the middle of Palo Alto's conservative professorville. Should I mind my own business or knock on the door and meet the creative owners of this house? I couldn't resist and chose the latter ... And, I met Rochelle Ford and her husband. Rochelle is a 70-something artist who makes remarkable metal sculptures out of recycled and discarded metal - or in other words, junk. Her story (and her husband's) inspired me to see the difference between making a living versus making a life.

Jelly Theory: Good morning, Rochelle. Thanks for your time and opening up your beautiful home for us to talk. You devoted yourself to a career in art later in life. What was the thought process?
Rochelle Ford: I’ve always been interested in art and have had a creative side to me. In my professional career, I ran an international nonprofit. The founder was dying of cancer at a young age and told me: Don’t die wondering, get to it. Four and a half years later, at 58 years of age, I left the organization and became an artist. I taught myself to become a welder. During the first two years, I held shows in New York. By the third year, I replicated my salary as Executive Director of the NGO, and surpassed it in my fourth year. I wanted to be a successful artist, not a starving one – and to make a living and a life as an artist. I had been in business all my life and was raised in a family in business. Art is 85 percent business.

How does your very unique home and garden fit into your artwork
Well, after I decided to give up business and become an artist, I came home and made art. I put price tags on my work, but the question became: How do you get people to come inside and take a look? The first thing my husband and I did was paint the house. This area of downtown Palo Alto is in an historic part of town where everything is neutral – white, beige, and gray – and so we began by painting the inside of the house and worked our way to the outside. Everyone was attracted to the house, both negatively and positively. The colors drew attention to our abode and signaled that something was going on in here that was different. As people were drawn to the exterior of the house, they gradually started coming inside and realized that I made small $20 dollar pieces to three-story high sculptures that were thousands of dollars. They would buy something modest and then many would call back about the sculpture upstairs or bringing a friend from out of town to visit. It was a snowball effect. I would say yes to opportunities even though I didn’t have previous experience in them. For example, 3COM asked me to design and build a chair for Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

That’s genius! I noticed that the outside of your house has three main colors. How did you pick them?
Martha Stewart had just started a paint line of floral colors. The colors are Martha Stuart flower colors because in a naïve way I thought that would makes the appearance of the house more socially acceptable. I was already set on the first two colors and was deciding between olive green or purple for the third color. My neighbors were going to have to live with the colors too, so I put it up to a vote. They picked purple because this was 15 years ago when many families were affected by war, and the green reminded them of the military.

Does that mea
n that your home is essentially an open gallery?
Yes, after going through many galleries and shows, I decided my house and yard would be my gallery, and I wouldn’t put my work in the hands of galleries. People can enjoy house and yard like a living gallery. There’s more art in it than any gallery would ever have. People come, and I make myself available to anyone who wants to visit and bring their guests. It really does work. Visitors find art they like or commission me to do a piece for a special part of their homes. I enjoy people and welcome them. There’s no pressure whatsoever. If they find something they like, I’m thrilled; and if not, we still get to visit over a cup of tea.

Your work is famous for being created from recycled and discarded metal. How does this aspect infuse meaning into your work?
We live in a throw away society. People throw a lot of things away that you can take and turn into something desirable. I used to find my starting materials in junkyards, but now people will randomly leave me items like a wrecked car fender hoping that I can use them.

This model runs in the family. My mother owned a second-hand clothing story. We lived in an upscale small community where people would wear something to a fancy party and never wear it again. My mom brought these worn once outfits to people who couldn’t afford clothes, and this made her happy. My father was a new and used car dealer. The new car business was cut and dry, so my dad loved the old car business more because he could take an old car and make it run perfectly for someone who couldn’t afford a new car: again, taking something no one else wanted anymore and turning it into something desirable.

So what are example parts that you can use in your art pieces?

Steel mill splatters in Pennsylvania
Melted aluminum windows from Berkeley fires
Sardine and tuna cans
Mirrors covered in copper from the roof of the oldest house in Saratoga
Inserts from hot water heater
Copper piping from an old fridge
Car muffler pipes
The outside of hot water heaters
Old metal trash cans

Wow. How did you go about finding and getting these kinds of parts?
When I was first getting started, I visited the local dump to see what I might find. This one time, I needed a spring from the hood of a car, so I went out, lifted the hood, and used a torch to spring it out. Six guys were standing by the dump clapping, and I ended up becoming good friends with the workers at the dump. They told me anytime I need a part, they would help me get it. I was given carte blanche to go to the dump, but I don’t go very often anymore. I already have a lifetime of garbage to work with.

Fifteen years ago at 58, you began your life and career in art. It’s inspiring and remarkable for those who may be thinking about life transitions. Haha, this is a comment, not a question, but feel free to respond.

The truth is that our home is a phenomenon to people, and I hope it says that you can get started in life late. I remind my customers of their mothers, grandmothers, and even themselves, and I encourage them to think that at even at 73 years old, your life isn’t over. I’ve given presentations at senior centers and retirement places. I tell the people there that life isn’t over and that they can use their creativity to express their interests. They shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do so.

Can you share a couple memorable stories about your interactions with visitors to your home?
Teachers will bring their students here to show them that we’re not always a throw away society. One time, a second grade class came over, and the kids were exploring the house. One little boy didn’t say a word the whole time, but would examine the price tags. At the end, the teacher asked if anyone had anything to say. All of a sudden, the boy raises his hand and says, “Lady, you charge a lot of money for junk.” I replied, “When you can turn junk into art, you can charge a lot of money.” And I could just see his brain working away. Another time a man came, stepped into our home, and bought the first sculpture he saw. I asked him what prompted him to buy this particular sculpture without looking at the rest, and he said it reminded him of the hat his mother used to wear to church.

I love that child’s honesty, and he definitely raises a good point. How do you price art that’s made from … junk?
A lot of people who buy my art say it’s reasonably priced. I used to think: Oh my goodness, this is a wrecked car part that someone threw away and has no value; and here I am, making it into a piece of art and charging for it! A lot of art is buying raw materials, making a piece of art, and then selling it. For me, I have to unmake raw materials first and then make them into something, so this justifies why I can take junk and sell it. Personally, I tend to be very conscience of how I spend my money, so I think: What would I be willing to pay? Other factors include time, equipment, gases, glaze, paint, size, materials, how good I feel about myself, etc. There’s no science to it. If visitors see something out of their budgets, I’d rather them have it if it makes them happy. That’s going to outlive me.

What inspires all of these pieces in your home, and do you have a few favorites?
The material motivates me. If you look around the room, you may notice the sculptures that are made out of nails. At one point I was given $300 dollars of rusty nails, and I made $5000 dollars worth of sculptures from that. I thought: I’ll take the nails and make at least $300 and then some. I then took the rest to the recycling center because I knew I’d never live long enough to use them up.

My favorite piece is always the last one I made. When I complete a project, I’m satisfied, forget about it, and move onto the next one. I value the process, not the end product. Every piece is one of a kind. I never reproduce my art.

With your home as your gallery, and your gallery as your home, do you find it hard to balance work and life?

I once made a sculpture of a woman, and she ended up with seven breasts, which was fitting because it captures a prevailing theme for women: they’re the wife, mother, neighbor, friend, etc. When I’m in the studio, it’s the only place where I’ve ever been able to concentrate on me and what it is that makes me whole – not that I don’t love these other roles. But when I’m in my studio, that’s my world, and I don’t think about another thing except creating what makes me happy and the whole artistic process.

This last question is a tradition for all Jelly Theory interviews. In your life’s work, how would you define entrepreneur?

An entrepreneur makes a living and has a life at the same time: she makes a living and a life.

Thank you, Rochelle. You're an incredible woman who is putting positive energy into the world.

At the end of our interview, Rochelle gave me this magnet: On the road of life, be a driver, not a passenger:

And here are other fun pictures for your viewing pleasure:


Yang said...

Jelly, this is so inspiring! You've done an excellent job!

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

Thanks Yang! Just passing along some inspiration ... You've been such an encouraging reader. :)

Meiyang said...

You're right, I do really like this...makes me remember to breathe and believe in possibilities. Thanks for the excellent work!

sherrie said...

I really enjoyed reading this interview :)

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

Happy to hear, Meiyang and Sherrie!

jennpal said...

Great interview and very inspiring!

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

Glad you found the interview inspiring, jennpal. I think this is my most popular monthly interview yet. Thanks for reading!

Unknown said...

Yay!! for Rochelle! I lived in the same neighborhood for 2 years and visited Rochelle twice. I'm now back in Singapore. This interview brought back all the wonderful memories of place, time and the spirit of Rochelle. Thanks, Jelly for this interview.

David H said...

Hey Jelly, really enjoyed this. Did you really just walk up to her house and knock?

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

Hi Joyce, thanks for reading and sharing all the way from Singapore. I have many good friends there and hope to visit one of these days.

David, I did! Trust me, if you walked past this house, you would understand. :)