Boston Globe

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Artist bemuses, amuses, provokes

By Meredith Goldstein, Globe Staff Correspondent, 2/2/2003

One gets the impression that artist Jack Welch may enjoy the public response to his art almost as much as making it.

''It will be great,'' he said, of one of his latest sculptures, ''Alcohol Man,'' who currently stands in his studio space on Essex Sreet in downtown Haverhill.

The piece is a body made of wood with a torso lined with empty beer case boxes. Alcohol Man bends over with the help of a large metal spring that makes him look as if he's had one too many. He'll be displayed in Lowell's Revolving Museum for a February exhibit.

''It's kind of a public nuisance type of piece,'' Welch said.

Welch doesn't mind the public nuisance appeal.

He once constructed a large dog made of women's fur coats and tied the pet to a tree in Haverhill, prompting many phone calls to police from residents who thought a real animal had been neglected. Another sculpture, made of a curvy female mannequin with a ticking alarm clock in her torso, could easily inspire those with loud biological clocks to squirm with discomfort. And those who visited Lawrence's ''Artwalk on North Canal'' exhibit last summer saw the 8-foot metal shopping cart that Welch left floating for the public to see all summer. The piece was called ''Resurrection.'' Unlike other shopping carts tossed into the waters that sink to the bottom with the rest of the litter, Welch's cart was coming back.

''It was huge,'' he said. ''It was like it was coming back bigger and better, taking over.''

Welch is in the process of starting his projects for this coming summer. He recently visited Haverhill's City Council, telling them of his plans to build a mini park that will float in the Merrimack River. The park will represent what Welch believes parkland and open space should look like -- emptyand clean. ''This city classically [messes] up every park it can get its hands on,'' he said. ''There are like five war memorials on every one. They'll have some fountain that is shut off and a hot dog stand on it. I said, `I'm going to make my own . . . park.' ''

Welch got a confused reaction from some councilors who looked at the plan. Some didn't understand why an artist would spend thousands on a project like this. Others didn't understand the message.

''Some of them don't get it at all,'' he said. ''This city has always wanted change and right when it's in their laps, they still won't get it.''

Welch is a Haverhill native. He graduated from Haverhill High School in 1981, and went on to study at the Maine College of Art and at New York's Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He lived in Chicago for 10 years, making similar sculptures and, as a day job, developing the interiors of night clubs. Two years ago, he decided to move back to Haverhill. He wanted to live in a city where it would just be him and his work. ''I call this the ghost town,'' he said. ''It really is just me.''

Since moving to the city, his art has been water based. He's found that by floating his sculptures along rivers and canals in the region, his work is seen by many, even by those people who would prefer not to see it.

Last year, many complained about the shopping cart piece in Lawrence. Welch heard that some Artwalk visitors wanted a more predictable type of art -- not a floating shopping cart. They wanted something pretty.

So, for this summer, he designed a new piece consisting of large floppy flowers that will float in the city's canal. He calls the piece, ''You wanted pretty.''

''I figured, you wanted pretty, `Here you go.' '' he said. ''It's tongue in cheek, just to play with them a little bit.''

Jay Faro, of Lawrence's Cultural Council, which gave Welch a small grant of $1,100 to construct the project, said only some will get the joke.

''There will be a certain stratum of people who understand what he's saying,'' he said. ''Some people will get it, that he's reacting to last year's criticism. There were so many people who were just shocked by what he did last year. They were shocked at the size of it. And they said, ''This is art? A shopping cart?''

Faro said the cultural council has supported Welch's work partly because of its thought-provoking nature.

''He made people think about something quite ordinary in a different way,'' he said.

One idea involves floating half of a doublewide trailer in the waters of Newburyport. It's his vision of the American dream, he said, the trailer buoyed with a large slice of apple pie.

''That community would never let a trailer in so I'll just sneak one down the river,'' he said.

Welch said that for now, he's floating his work, but he's not ''that guy who floats things.''

''That's not all I do,'' he said. ''Next, I could be putting stuff up on the moon.''

Welch's ''Alcohol Man'' and several of his other pieces will be shown at Lowell's Revolving Museum Feb. 14 in its ''Wonders of the World (WOW) 4: Play-Land'' exhibit, which features sculptural games, performances and other special works. For more information, visit the museum's Web site at

Welch expects to anchor his floating park in Haverhill and his floating flowers in Lawrence in June for the summer season. He is hosting a fund-raising event for construction of his pieces at Keon's, 105 Washington St., Haverhill on Feb 23 from 5 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit