Artisan Wednesday | Steve Schrenk from Polycor

To gather a deeper and more intimate connection with the artists and artisans we work with, we asked each to answer a series of questions. We will be showcasing each Q+A in correlation with our familial content. Enjoy!
x Shop Zung

 

Without giving away your location, describe where you are right now. What are the things you see, smell, or hear around you?

I’m hearing the hum of crickets, the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of a sprinkler, a drone of distant leaf blowers and a creaking umbrella overhead as a steady drift of sea-breeze flows in from the east, cooling my face and the side of my body. 


Taste, touch, smell, sound, sight — which of the five senses do you rely on the most? Why?

Sight. There’s such an infinite level of visual stimuli, no matter where I direct my sight, that it just feels like a deluge of information that never stops. Even attempting to stop it by shutting my eyes still leaves after effects of patterns and colors on my eyelids and I continue to see things. With sight I can practically feel what I’m seeing, from a distance or up close. From color, to texture, to light, shade, pattern, saturation, and temperature - there’s a nonstop communication happening at all times with my eyes. As an artist I’ve trained my eyes over the years to focus, blur and play with the things I see which I think has had an impact. 


Tell us about your relationship to Studio Zung. To begin, when and where did your relationship with Tommy start? What drew you to working with us?

Back when Polycor acquired the Alberene Soapstone quarry, the longest operating (and only active) soapstone quarry in North America, I had learned about an architect in New York City who had specifically sought out the stone for several projects. At that time Alberene Soapstone was still an unknown brand, despite the stone’s historic reputation back in the early 20th century when it literally built the town of Schuyler, Virginia and employed thousands of people. I was intrigued that an architect would go to such lengths to source a stone and take the time to find the right people to talk to in order to get just the right product he wanted, especially when New York is filled with showrooms of stone. I knew I needed to meet this person to hear what this stone meant to him. I got the sense that he had a deeper connection to materials beyond aesthetics or performance alone, especially natural materials, that came through in his designs - that it meant something more to him. I wanted to understand that from his perspective. So I looked him up and went to his office and met with one of the team who happened to be looking to specify a dark stone for another project and was considering using Alberene Soapstone again, so my timing was good. I still didn’t have the chance to speak with Tommy at that time, but I personally managed the project and eventually that led to our meeting at a later date.

Polycor Alberene Soapstone used in the bathroom of Maison 7 by Studio Zung 

Polycor Pearl Gray Marble and Alberene Soapstone fire-hearth at Atelier 211 by Studio Zung

How has this relationship evolved over time? Could you describe one of your favorite moments or projects working with Tommy and our Studio?

We have more knowledge of what inspires each other and what drives our creativity, like who we really are versus just a vendor / client relation. We come from different backgrounds but we see a similar interconnectedness of things and there’s an alignment that happens at particular moments that wasn’t there originally. One of the most memorable moments working with Tommy was when we met at a busy cafe downtown to discuss an upcoming project. After ordering we talked about surfing for a while - him asking how the last swell was in New Jersey and me asking how Montauk had been (our mutual fondness for surfing and talking about the waves and ocean seems to always kick start the conversation).

We then jumped right into the project details and what struck me was the way he began sketching directly on the paper tablecloth as we were talking. In a feverish state of creation he was thinking out loud, drawing and making decisions simultaneously on the spot while surrounded by all the noise of the people talking around us and the interruptions of the server. None of it phased him and I was excited to be pacing along with him and following his vision amidst all the distractions, to see how he never lost that initial level of excitement and laser focus. The act of creating is exciting to witness, and I felt fortunate to be there to experience it. And when we concluded our meeting he just casually ripped off the important drawings and folded them up in his pocket, thanked the server and walked out, ready for the next step in the process. It all felt so fluid and effortless. 


We want to know more about your own creative process, walk us through it. How do you begin your sculptures? Do you anchor it with an image, a material, color, feeling? How do you come to a stopping point and know your work is complete, if you ever think so?

I envision an image of something fluid. Usually something that is in movement itself, or that moves through a substance, and their interactions with each other. The flow of water around rocks in a stream, a wave moving towards shore or ripples around jetties, the hull of a boat cutting through water, shapes of various marine life, fins or anything else related to flow and hydrodynamics. These feelings and shapes are synthesized into a subject like a figure, or the fluid objects themselves become the subject itself.

Fluidessence (White Cherokee Marble) by Steve Schrenk

I begin with either a cut block of stone that is squared with 6 flat sides and angles or a rough block that has irregular sides and an organic shape to it. On the squared blocks I methodically draw out the forms on each side, from each angle, and carve my way into it until the sides start meeting up and joining together. On the rough blocks I direct carve into them without any preconceived ideas in mind. It’s dependent on the situation and what my emotions are at the time. Knowing when to call a piece complete is always a challenge. My hands, and the feeling of the surfaces, play a big part in dictating the level of completion of a piece. I have to walk around it and analyze it from every angle, following the lines and forms with my eyes, before I’m satisfied that all the curves and angles are just right.


How would you describe your work? How do other people describe your work?

Fluid, flowing, and wave-like or an essence or distillation of things is how I typically refer to my work. People generally react to my sculptures as abstractions of literal things and try to discover what they are based on. But they intuitively follow the forms and see the movement. It’s great when they immediately feel compelled to touch the piece. They’re often hesitant, fearing that it could do something harmful to it, so I enjoy letting them know it’s a compliment for them to handle it. 


What is your favorite sculpture you designed? What about one from a different designer?

While staying at a farm in South Carolina I was surrounded by woods and natural outcrops of boulders while carving a fresh block of marble. One of these boulders was quite large, about 10 feet long and 5 feet tall. One side of it was hollowed out from natural weathering or geological formation. I decided to sculpt the piece to integrate it with the boulder. Its forms curved and hooked their way back into the boulder’s hollow where it found its final resting place. I assume it is still there, deep in the woods, just as I left it years ago and I often think of it there.

Jean Hans Arp, the French surrealist (born in Germany), has an oeuvre that resonates with me. He was drawn to marble, and sculpture in the round, during the last 10 years of his life after a successful artistic career creating collages and relief sculptures in wood. His piece Growth, 1938 is one of my favorite sculptures that draws me into its folds and curvilinear, bulbous forms. He embarked in an entirely new direction with his discovery and passion for natural stone, and I admire how he dedicated himself to unraveling the mysteries of marble in those remaining years of his life. 


Think of an object in your home that has the most significance to you. Could you share with us what it is and the memory behind it?

There’s a collage made from cutouts of old Surfer magazine ads, illustrations and logos spanning the 60’s and 70’s that was made by my father. He’s been surfing for 50 years and he taught me as a kid. He made it while he was in his early 20’s. Not only do I love the vintage vibes and subject matter but also the careful cutouts and artful arrangement are skillfully done. He used an old sheet of plywood and poured a clear resin varnish layer over the top to encase the paper. Knowing the time he took, and the thought he put into it at the time makes me appreciate it even more. He recently gave me all his old issues of surfer mags that bring back memories of us pouring over the pages together for hours on end. 


We live in a society where so much of our identity is surrounded by the things we consume whether that be the things we buy, the food we eat, or the content we see, along with the fast paced nature of it. How do you approach mindful living and sustainability in the context of your work and in your everyday life?

When I do the dishes, I do the dishes. Meaning, whatever I’m doing at the moment I try to do it thoughtfully and experience doing it completely. I also think often about the fact that we don’t choose where and how we come into the world. We’re all presented with sets of circumstances that are beyond our control when we’re born. We bend and weave our ways through decisions in life to arrive at where we are now. This is a grounding thought for me that keeps me rooted in a humanist, existential mindset. 


What do you envision for Polycor in five years? What about yourself as an artist?

Polycor will become carbon neutral by 2025. The entire workforce is aligning to achieve this goal which means so much to all of us. We’re working on innovations and improvements such as sound water use, increasing renewable energy, and prioritizing alternative fuel sources at our quarry sites. There will be intensive work mobilized around this initiative for the coming years. This, in addition to future mergers and acquisitions will hold some exciting new developments in our products and services. As an artist, I’m thinking of acquiring more handling equipment to work even larger than I do currently. Material handling becomes a challenge in its own right when you’re working in a material that uses tons as the basic unit of measure. I dream of carving bigger blocks of stone after all the quarries I’m visiting and witnessing how they wrestle with these massive blocks, moving them about so methodically and effortlessly. I think to myself of all the sculptures contained in each of them as they lay around the quarry - I want to dive into them and peel back what’s inside.

 

 

What do you want people to take away from working with natural stones and Polycor? What is the legacy you imagine for your brand?

I want people to be passionate about natural stone and to understand that engineered stone, aka artificial stone, has its limitations. Whether it be precast concrete or a petroleum-based product, these materials lack  the soul and character that genuine stone has. Mass produced, man-made products are an outward reflection of lifeless assembly lines, polluting refineries and factories whereas stone is by the earth and for the earth. Polycor realizes the importance of preserving the heritage of these quarries that, in turn, preserve the architectural heritage that has built our greatest cities and monuments. And these North American stones were what provided a way of living for generations of families that helped shape our history. This is what you tap into when you use a Polycor stone in your project, and there’s a lot of good vibes in knowing that everyone involved in transforming that stone has a passion for it themselves. This comes through in the end product. Not to mention all the cool architecture we know and love that was built using these materials - did I mention Rockefeller Plaza, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art? 


Are you looking forward to anything in the next few months? Any new exciting projects or plans?

I’m personally very excited about the Frick Collection expansion. I’ve treasured every visit to this museum in the city, the personal home of Henry Clay Frick who collected some of the greatest artwork from around the world. Seeing the paintings and sculptures inside his home, set against the backdrop of period decor and meticulous craftsmanship is unique. His home was built with Indiana Limestone from Polycor’s historic quarries in Bedford and Oolitic, Indiana. Polycor continues to quarry this stone today, just as they’ve done since the 1880’s when Mr. Frick was first building his home in 1912 on Central Park. The Frick Collection is currently building an addition to provide new gallery spaces and they are coming back to Polycor’s quarry. In order to maintain the original design intent they’ll be using the same Indiana limestone for a seamless effect, uniting the old and new through stone. It will be amazing to be involved in the project, follow its progress, and ultimately get to enjoy the outcome by attending future exhibitions. How about a Caravaggio show? Yes, please!

 

Photo courtesy of Steve Schrenk