Sculptor Richard Criddle has spent the last 15 years of his career making other artists' art. He heads the fabrication and installation crew at Mass MoCA.
Their job is to build the installations that big-name artists are commissioned to create. That means following drawings, photos and written instructions to make the piece look and function as the artist -- who may live in Boston, Berlin or Beijing -- wants it to.
This weekend, Criddle steps into the spotlight himself with a show of his own recent work at MCLA Gallery 51 on Main Street here. "Compendium," a collection of his most recent drawings and sculptures, will be on view until Sept. 23.
Criddle, 57, a native Brit, who came to New England 1996 and is now a U.S. citizen, talked about his roots, education, working life and being an artist in the service of other artists in an interview Monday at his Mass MoCA studio.
Crammed with tools, found objects, sketches and notes, and dominated by a pig-eared aviator figure in a truncated cockpit (called "Big Bomber: Bay of Pigs") and a deer sporting a helmet seated atop a stepladder ("The Last Hunter: Our Unfortunate Relationship With Animals"), the studio is where Criddle spent five weeks this summer preparing for his exhibition.
It was, he said, a chance "to take time off from an all-consuming job and get back to a quiet spot and hear the (inner) conversations you need to work creatively."
The "conversations" he has are with his own remembered experiences and with the found objects he collects -- fragments of machinery, the limbs of dolls and mannequins, military paraphernalia, bits of fur, antlers, and bones. They dovetail in fantastical, figurative artworks that seem part nightmare and part play.
"My memory is a rich resource," Criddle said. "Now that I'm in my mid-50s, I have a lot to think about and remember and I'm really enjoying it.
Much of what's in the Gallery 51 show, he said, draws upon his life from adolescence into his late 20s.
"A word, a phrase, some visual thing," he said, will start a creative train of thought -- as did the movie "Dr. Strangelove" in leading to the pig-eared aviator. Movies, pop music, collected objects, adolescent games all helped shape his library of memories.
Jonathan Secor, director of special programming at MCLA, who offered Criddle this show, said "I love his work. It's big, bold and brass. There's a political feeling, darkness, militarism. It's right there. Wow."
Raised working class, Criddle said he loved to draw and "horrified" his father, a truck driver, by saying he wanted to go to art school. His grades qualified him for a grant to do just that, though he switched from graphic illustration to sculpture once he discovered how he loved the "dust and dirt" of it.
After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1978, he established a studio in London, casting and assembling sculptures and architectural elements on commission and teaching on the side.
Came to Unitetd States
He met and married Debora Coombs, a stained-glass artist, in the mid-1980s. When a major commission brought her to the United States in 1996, he and their two children joined her in North Adams, where she was working at the Cummings Stained Glass Studio.
Criddle soon met Joseph Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, still in infancy at that time. Thompson offered him studio space, he said, as a "perk" for volunteer work in carpentry and metal at the museum.
In 1998, he made him director of fabrication and art installation.
With a team of three others, he has since put together installations for artists from all over the word.
Sign language substitutes for spoken words when English can't be understood.
Although the projects are not true artistic collaborations and recognition goes to the artists who conceived them, Criddle said he "doesn't suffer jealousy, envy or regret" at sublimating his own creativity to serve another's vision.
"It would be terrible to think that could have been me," he said.
"Everybody needs to pay the mortgage and earn a living. It's a balancing act -- a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. You get used to it. (But) the flame of creativity is never extinguished."
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What: "Compendium," an exhibition of sculptures and drawings by Richard Criddle.
Where: MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St., North Adams.
When: Though Sept. 23. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Information: www.MCLA.edu /Gallery51