Alan Horwitz’s Found Art at the Stony Creek Library

BRANFORD — When Alan Horwitz finds a gnarled piece of wood on the beach or lifts a gnarled tree branch from the forest floor, he sees a bird or a fish. He can even imagine a life-size horse.

These are some of the raw materials the Stony Creek artist uses to create what he calls his “assemblages of natural elements.” Some pieces have a Native American vibe, while others are whimsical — such as a “coffee cup” made from a piece of tree trunk that will be a sign of Stony Creek Market’s interior.

Horwitz’s found art is on display in the gallery at the Willoughby Wallace Library in Stony Creek through October 23.

Most of his unusual three-dimensional works, although sculptural, are ready to be hung on the wall or displayed outdoors in a garden or building.

As Horwitz prepared to hang his exhibit recently, his organic artworks were scattered on the floor and on table tops in a jumble.

The artist seemed humble about his work and was eager to show the guest each work.

“Some of them haven’t been installed yet – it’s hard to see” what they are, he said. “If you look at them here, you’ll see better.”

As he stood among the scattered works, he pointed to his collection of strange “birds”—an owl, a turkey, a hummingbird—their heads, beaks, and wings fashioned from smooth pieces of wood, irregular tree branches, and other natural matter.

Some pieces take a second look to see the artist’s intent. His collection of crudely rendered shorebirds was arranged on one table, while on another, long, narrow fish lay side by side with eyes carved out or ones he had drawn.

“I thought that mouth was cool,” Horwitz said, pointing to one of his primitive-looking “fishes.”

Picking up a “little turtle,” he noted, “I just finished gluing it last night.”

“It’s just stuff you find around,” he said matter-of-factly.

Horwitz finds his materials near and far—from the coast in Charlestown RI, to the Cape National Seashore and the Berkshire Appalachian Trail, and as far as Mexico, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Israel, and the West Coast. However, he emphasized that it will not harm any living thing or plant.

Horwitz is also inspired by where an object is found.

The object found may evoke an image of “wing, beak, eye, claw.” He takes this idea and goes beyond it “to enhance the original image” with his montage.

“Sometimes I don’t have a specific form in mind,” he said, adding that an idea will come to him while he’s working on a piece. The artist sometimes changes objects from the way they appear in their natural environment.

His latest venture is “fire carving,” a new technique that uses the fuel from a Tiki torch to speed up the burn in a piece of wood.

“I let the fire carve the wood,” he described. The fire burns a softer line or curve into a sharp cut in the wood and enhances the grain pattern.

Horwitz works near a hearth as a source of fire and for safety. It increases combustion by directly applying the fuel to the wood; he slows it down by spraying or immersing in water.

It also controls the burn by how close (or far) it is to the hottest part of the fire. Finishes the piece in a water bath.

Although he is constantly evolving as an artist, he has long had a love of found objects.

When Horwitz, 65, was a boy, he was greatly influenced by Anne Lindbergh’s book Gifts from the Sea. “I read that as a kid and that’s when I started collecting shells. I just loved beachcombing.”

For Horwitz, a melted horseshoe shell, a small tree trunk, porcupine quills, seed pods and feathers are the stuff art is made of. He also collects stones and animal bones.

He sometimes buys raw, natural materials to complete a piece, he happily admitted.

Does the artist throw something away? “No, I try not to,” he said.

“All I do is put it together,” he said of his work. “I use glue, I use nail guns.”

While Horwitz took up his art “late in life” 12 years ago, he loved “wood and metal shop” as a boy in middle school and high school. There he learned to work with a jigsaw, table saw, drill and router.

When he goes on his forays into nature, he seeks to capture natural forms. The “heads and tails” of animals is what he sees when he looks at found pieces of wood.

For his prized life-size sculpture of a horse made of wood called Denali, he specifically sought pieces that resembled horse hooves.

Although Denali is not actually included in this exhibition – he stands in a private garden nearby – a triptych of photographs shows the imposing stallion.

“The picture doesn’t do it justice,” Horwitz said of the sculpture, which is based on a real horse. “I measured the real Denali horse,” he noted.

The story of Denali’s origin perhaps best describes Horwitz’s process.

“I’ve been planning to do this for about eight years,” Horwitz said of the ambitious piece. “So any time I saw something that looked like the tail — especially something that looked like a head and mane — if I saw a piece that I thought would work with it, I would take it.

“And I actually had enough for about three horses, so I’d go for the best hoof,” he added.

Fellow “Creeker” and artist Unk DaRos, who is quite handy, welds the supporting metal part to the wooden form. He also placed a rebar, driving it 9 inches into the rock to support the wooden base made by Horwitz.

Above that base, Horwitz said, “is the decorative wood” that gives the horse its shape and life.

The wood, he describes, “is held together by screws, except for the lower part.”

Horwitz loved working in the peaceful woods there: “When I stopped working on Denali and had to leave the garden, I was so sad,” he said with a smile.

“I describe it as heaven on earth,” he said of the partially wild garden, which follows an abandoned railway line. Community members take care of it and local artists have contributed sculptures there.

Horwitz’s name may be familiar to some who lived in the area in the 1980s and decades before that. As the third generation, he worked in his family’s business, Horwitz Department Stores, which had locations in Madison (opened in 1980); Branford (opened in the 1960s); and West Haven (1930). All three stores closed in 1992.

When Horvitz isn’t hunting for stuff or carving, he’s still working as an outfitter, his own custom order company called Well Suited. On his website, www.wellsuitedct.com/artist, he says he “is an artist in his spare time.”

You could also say that Horvitz is an accidental artist. He started working with wood after making a canopy out of the material for his wedding, his second marriage, in the 1950s, he said. “I made the gazebo that we got married under, it was made out of gorse – it’s in front of my house,” he said.

“I got such good feedback on it, I’m just starting to do more,” he said.

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