Visual artist Jarod Charzewski’s studio is a scene of organized chaos. In one corner, there are four bulbous Little Tykes toy boxes shaped like a football, a Humpty Dumpty boy and a Humpty Dumpty girl, and a somewhat menacing pig. In another, there are all kinds of tools, from power drills to pliers, and random pieces of the detritus of human life: funnels, tubes, bicycle tires. A complete, mostly real, dolphin skeleton is mounted in the center — it will be part of an installation on water and oceans at Winthrop University this fall.
Then there’s the huge, four-foot tall container of cables: HDMI cables, phone charger cables, coaxial cables, even old Nintendo cables. Gathered from friends, students, and acquaintances, they’ll be transformed into a sculptural installation for a show in Fredericksburg, Va., although it’s not quite clear yet what form that will take. “It’ll all be done on site — I’ll just do a mock-up of the technique I want to use there,” Charzewski says. “I can never really do a rehearsal installation, often because I don’t have the space or the time to really focus.”
This is the kind of work Charzewski, a College of Charleston professor and winner of the 2015 S.C. Arts Commission Visual Arts Fellowship, loves to delve into. Although he’s technically a sculptor — the Canadian-born artist holds an MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota, and he teaches the medium at CofC — he’s not the kind that works with stone, marble, or clay. Instead, Charzewski works with a vast assortment of materials to create, almost exclusively, site-specific installations on a grand scale.
In the past, he’s carved oversized army men out of books on warfare, constructed a massive false landscape out of discarded clothing, and assembled huge numbers of fishing buoys into a gallery piece that not only overflowed out of the gallery’s doors, but looked like it could bob away any minute.
“I’ve always made stuff, since I was a kid — I made art, I made things,” Charzewski says. “I never thought of it as sculpture. But I think what makes someone a sculptor is a physical connection to materials … there’s a lot of construction, renovations, those sorts of things in my background, so I was brought up that way, to be very physical with materials. I had a creative background as well, and needed to merge the two.”
Charzewski grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and maintains a strong artistic connection to the region’s wide open, prairie landscape. “I think it has a lot to do with me becoming an installation artist — that spatial concept. Winnipeg is vast. You can see forever, and you think about that space between you and the distance.” It’s ironic, he adds, that he ended up in Charleston, “where every little closet space is spoken for. It’s really a contrasting environment, but still helpful. You use what you have.”
After graduating from college at the University of Manitoba, Charzewski spent time managing the school’s art studio, which immersed him in the local art community. “I was saturated with art in general,” he says. “I got really involved in the art scene in Winnipeg, which is a wonderful environment to be growing up in as an artist. I think it’s something to do with the winters — people retreat to their basements and make art all winter long. Then summer comes and all this art and music and theater comes out. It’s amazing.”
As much as he loved being a part of the city’s artistic community, he still wasn’t fully committed to being an artist himself. After a few years of wandering, both figuratively and literally — including a year-long stay in Nassau in the Bahamas — Charzewski enrolled as an MFA student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It was only at that point, he says, that he really started taking his art seriously. “I graduated [college] in 1996, but I wasn’t applying myself,” he says. “It’s only looking back that you realize that. I was older when I decided to go to grad school, and that’s when I said, ‘I’m really going to push hard and do this.'” Shortly after he finished at the University of Minnesota, in 2006, he landed a position at CofC. Now he’s an associate professor — he just gained his tenure in May and is on sabbatical until next January.
It’s a good thing, too, because Charzewski has plenty keeping him busy for the next several months. He’s currently working on projects for his shows in Fredericksburg and at Winthrop. Right now, the project he’s focused on is the cable piece, which will be an exploration of the human instinct to collect. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the things people collect, things we unconsciously collect,” he says. “I have this box of cables in my house, I think everybody has that box. Why don’t we throw it away? Somehow, unconsciously, we cannot separate from it. ‘Oh, this is good quality, I’m going to keep it, it might come in handy someday.’ I wanted to do something with those cables.”
He did a project on the same concept for the 2013 ArtFields festival in Lake City, S.C. That piece used flower vases — you know, like the ones you probably have stashed somewhere in your kitchen, where they’ve sat unused for years. “It was a similar thing: we cannot sever ourselves from these objects. Maybe it has sentimental value, or there’s a memory we want to preserve. So I put this call out on campus that I wanted those vases, and I ended up with about 500 of them. Maybe this is what people are waiting for when they save these things.”
Once the cable installation has been set up and torn down, Charzewski will charge ahead with his next endeavor — whatever that may be. “I just try to be busy,” he says. “I’m not happy unless I’m busy, inventing something new. It always happens pretty spontaneously.”