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Curio delight

Chris Ramsay’s art of found objects

Tulsa Artist Fellow Chris Ramsay and his collection of thousands of found objects

Melissa Lukenbaugh

The desks, tables, shelves, and window sills in Tulsa Artist Fellow Chris Ramsay’s two-room studio are covered with hundreds—possibly thousands—of small found objects: vintage pins, feathers, beads, fossilized trilobites and chrinoids, pebbles, smashed pencils, broken glass—you name it. All litter his workspace. 

I want to spend hours pouring over them. I sense a kindred spirit in Ramsay—one that loves little things, cast aside or lost-and-then-found things, things that look meaningless but have had long and storied lives. 

But Ramsay is thrilled to show me, first, the advances he’s made in learning how to use 3D modeling software. 

“The learning curve for someone who doesn’t have an engineering background is pretty stiff,” he tells me. “I was really struggling with it, but now I actually can do it and operate a shop bot with some authority, and I feel—my confidence has grown tremendously.”

“That’s good,” I say.

“Oh, it’s huge!” His eyes light up.

Ramsay is gleeful and an easy conversationalist. Over the next hour and a half we cover everything from jewelry making to the ever-changing nature of carbon, finding fossils to monarch migration, national parks to America’s love of industry. 

From this, I find that, like his collections and work, Ramsay is an amalgamation of many kinds of inspiration: digital and ancient, natural and man-made, found and created—a kind of reliquary, if you will, for things. 

“I’ve collected objects, really, since I was a child. I was fascinated by things I would pick up. And usually they’re things that eroded or changed in some way by, you know, process or the environment, handling or age.”

Ramsay started as a jewelry maker—it was the first thing he wanted to make. While a lot of his work now is in the form of sculpture, installation, and wall hangings, Ramsay still makes wearable pieces: brooches. 

We stand over a shelf holding a handful of round and oval-shaped brooches decorated with beads, glass pieces, shells, fossils, stones, each with a centerpiece. One has a glass bubble containing red dirt, another a small fossilized shell. They are beautiful; each one is unique, and, if worn, could only be referred to as a “statement piece.” But statements that are curious and gentle—that make you question form, history, and the narrative of their making.

The brooches are similar to his wall hangings, which are also oval and round. In fact, they are designed on the same computer program, the very handy Rhinoceros 3D software, which allows him to use the same form but scale up or down its size. 

“In the past, I have always hand cut, formed, and shaped [each piece], and so to be able to mill it—” Ramsay says, then snaps for emphasis. 

“After I get the form, that’s where the art really happens. And that’s still how it is for me … this is just a way to create forms.”

For “Migration,” a large circular wall hanging, he hand-formed small birds, each different, and cast them in bronze. They sit inside the viewing circle in the middle of the piece, against its back wall. 

We turn to “Witness,” another piece he is currently working on. “Witness” is made of a found tree trunk onto which Ramsay has installed nine small circular doors on tiny brass hinges. Behind each of the doors, which he designed on Rhinoceros and cut with a shop bot, are images from vintage postcards depicting the wonders of industry—oil rigs, coal plants, steel, smoke, production! 

“For me to hand carve those [doors],” he says, “that’s all I would’ve been doing this spring—making those, you know? And that’s not the most important part of the piece. The content is more important.”

And the content is important—and immediate. Ramsay thinks often about carbon and climate change. 

“The tree is a witness to what is happening in the carbon cycle. When I started this residency, I was thinking, ‘how can I deal with climate change?’ But everything started to look like a science project in my mind, and I didn’t want that. I tried to find an artful way to deal with it.”

For more from Liz, read her interview with Imbibe editor Paul Clarke.

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