Chris Truax: Heavy Metal

ou don’t have to see Chris Truax’s work to know he’s an artist. When I met up with Chris in the Pearl District for a scoop of ice cream, he met each question as I imagine he does his sculptures. He would consider the question and study it from all angles. Sometimes he would add something in here or there, only to scrap it for a better approach. The result, like his work, was one part technical, one part whimsical, and wholly engaging.

Like so many of us, Chris and his family blazed their own Oregon Trail to Portland nearly a decade ago. Since that time, this young talent has quickly made a name for himself as one of the city’s premier metal sculptors, whose play between industrial and organic themes has earned him the chance to show his creations alongside sometimes surprising company—from original Salvador Dalí works to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.

By the time you moved to this area, were you already interested in art and creating art?

Kind of. I took a class in high school that was doing three-dimensional animation, and that’s where it really started for me, was starting to do animation and little figurines and sculptures and stuff. And then from there, I just kind of stopped for a couple years, moved up here, and something got rekindled. I started doing it consistently after that. So I’ve been doing it for about nine years I guess.

What was the first piece you remember creating?

Ever since I was a young kid, I would do model making and stuff like that.
I would create my own models. And that’s how it got started, with just hot glue and model parts. And then I started getting more and more detail prone, and it was important to me to find the little details and to really spend time doing that.

My first year of college I took a welding class, and that’s what triggered me to do metal sculpture. During that time I just started making sculptures. My teacher was really blown away by that, because he was more of a technical kind of person. So when I started making smaller scale sculptures, he kind of pushed me to keep going and to “keep doing what you’re doing.”

After that, I went to Clackamas Community College and did their whole art program, everything I could. And then I started working on my own stuff. My first real robot sculpture, the one with the wings—“Lilli”—that took about a year to do.

Wow, why so long?

Because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing!

Was it a lot of assembling, taking pieces off and then starting again?

Yeah. Just like writing, the idea’s there. It’s all the little stuff that takes the greatest amount of time—structure, things that work well and things that don’t. There is definitely a zone you get in as an artist, a zone you get in where time passes you by. And you create in that space. That’s that creative element that people usually strive for. When you finally get in that mode and you get stuck, you move on to another project.

So how long does your average piece take you now?

Between 400 and 500 hours. Depends on what it is. Something simple that I’ve done before will take much less time than something that I’m kind of freestyling and building from scratch. It takes a third of the time to duplicate something than to create it from nothing.

After spending that long on one piece, is it really hard to see it go when it sells?

For that first piece, it is—which is why there’s not an asking price, there’s a dream price where I would sell it to them if they paid that much. But this actual first piece is showing other buyers that I can get as intricate or simple as you want. It’s kind of a showpiece.

Your family’s business is cars, right? Car repair or customization?

We do vintage Thunderbird parts. It’s parts, and if the car’s worth restoring we’ll restore it. We specialize in ‘58 to ‘66 Thunderbirds.

I know you use some auto parts in your sculptures, is there anything else from your family’s business that carries over  to your art?

Yes, I do work for my family business full time, 9 to 5. Because I’m dealing with old cars everyday, I’ve learned some special techniques. Which were learned the hard way through just hit and miss, I do incorporate these technique into some of my art.

Give me an example.

Sometimes I have to… I can’t give you an example without telling you my secrets!

Oh, there are secrets?

Just like a magician—they don’t tell you the trick, or the magic is gone. When I have a piece of artwork that someone sees, if I break it down and explain everything, it’s going to seem more simplistic, and then that’s not as magical.

Your work has a sort of marriage of the softer organic elements with the industrial elements. Talk about what that represents for you and why you’re drawn to putting them together in one piece.

Organic is definitely created by God, and things that are more mechanic are things that we’re trying to mimic to be organic. We’re getting more efficient by copying God’s work.

I fell in love with the idea of being organic and having more of a plant life—
than something that is made of metal, but has its own personality where it starts forming and flowing a certain kind of way and it’s very natural, organic—where there’s no restriction. So I love to incorporate both of those things into my work.

Is that making a deeper statement about your worldview, or why do those things speak to you? Is there a message behind it, or is it just to have the coolness and wonder visually of seeing it?

It’s a little of both. My message is that, when I get in that zone, I feel like it’s not me doing it. My art is finally maturing to the point where I want to be able to express that more. I feel like it’s a gift that I’m putting down on paper. It’s something that is a spiritual gift in a way. There’s a conversation to be had when I’m making something, some specific pieces—not every piece does that. Sometimes I force it and it sucks, and I’ll just put it on the backburner. I don’t know, it’s kind of a natural feeling.

My whole line of work, for the last whatever plus years, has been what I want to do. Now I want to do stuff that will impact other people and will really show them not only what I can do, but also what God can do for us. That’s a hard one (laughs).

What drew you more to three-dimensional art? When a lot of people think of art, their minds go to painting and drawing.

You just answered that question. Because when people think of art, it’s two-dimensional—something you approach on a wall, you know. So when I’m creating these pieces, I’m creating something that is not only three-dimensional, but is very likeable, and the minute you see it, you get it. You don’t have to read something to describe what it is. It’s not abstract, it’s just a delightful, fun thing. If it’s in the center of the room, people are spending 10, 15 times longer looking at a piece that they do compared with something that you painted. We’re such a three-dimensional, tangible society—we want to touch it, we want to feel it, we want to look at it from alternate angles.

Portland’s jammed packed with artists of every stripe. Do you find it a great place to create art or does all that competition make it sort of stifling?

When you’re a three-dimensional artist there’s really no competition… I want to say 90 percent of artists are two-dimensional here, and there are like six people that do metal sculpture. I’m friends with all of them, so there’s really no competition. It’s like a little club that you have to be good to get into.

My first show was at the Guardino Gallery. My second show ever was in the Pearl District at Gallery 903. I guess it takes years to get into the Pearl District just to show your art. And it took me probably a year just to get on the waiting list, but then I was in. But they (at my second show) actually showed me with Salvador Dalí’s work (laughs in amazement). So my second run of anything, and I got to show with like 30 of his original works! From there, I really don’t have any problem getting into any gallery.

So was the show at Gallery 903 a turning point?

Yeah, it kind of gave me a boost of, okay, maybe I do have something here.

Before that, was your ambition to do this as a career? Did you take it as seriously as a career, or were you waiting to see where it went?

I was enjoying myself. I mean, when you first do anything it’s because you want to, not because—oh, I want to make a lot of money—because it’s hard, you know? Making money is very difficult. So you gotta have it as a passion and a love, and that’s what it was at first. Now I’m trying to change gears—the organic, very beautiful stuff definitely sells, and the more robotic stuff is more for my personal use, but I want to do both.

What’s coming up for you? What’s ahead for fall and winter?

I’ve been working for Nike doing a couple of freelance things for them—advertisements for the SB Chronicles. It’s about these skaters—we did a Rube Goldberg machine showing what each person liked. We built four of them. It was a lot of fun. I worked with one of the best woodworkers/marionette makers in the industry, and a really great carpenter and painter.

I’m also doing a GEAR Con convention, doing artwork for them.

What is a GEAR Con convention?

GEAR Con is kind of like ComicCon, but with steampunk nerds. So I’m showing my artwork there and selling smaller things, but I’m doing kind of a technical reveal of one of the robots to the convention. We’re going to try to do a pilot, a reality show in a way, of me working on art and getting the deadlines, and dealing with the things I need to deal with beforehand, then we’ll film the reveal of everything.

Where do you feel you’re evolving to as an artist?

I think I want to do bigger things, more involved with the public. This private stuff is okay, but installation is something I would want to get into—larger scale, bolder items.

I would like to eventually get to a point where I have my own gallery or space for retail, and basically to be a curator of some sort and have other artists to come in. That would be my goal, and to get other people involved. I have two other interns, two other people that are interested in what I’m doing, so I’m teaching them everything I can. In return, they help me with projects and stuff like that.

My goal is to share this gift that I have. You don’t want to be selfish when it comes to something like that. That’s one of my goals too—not to be a jerk when I do eventually become successful. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and be consistent. I know I’m on my way.

What would you consider success in your career? By the end of your career, what do you want to be able to say you’ve accomplished? 

I want to be the best! The best sculptor, or just creator, of urban stylized art. I want to be known enough for someone to say, “I got a Chris Truax original.” Not to get famous, but just to get known enough to where I can be consistently busy, and consistently have a job that I love. I think that’s my main goal. Just to have a clientele where I’m doing it full-time and loving what I’m doing.

About The Author: Brooke Preston