23 Jul Antrim County News, 23 July 2008
Man of Steel
By Jeffray Kessler, Contributing Writer
As he discusses art on the porch of his home outside of Mancelona, a roofline shadow, cast by high afternoon sun, splits sculptor John Unger, ecliptically, into two halves.
The image is emblematic of a man whose talents currently are bringing him success on two main fronts. He is an internationally renowned metal sculptor and a recognized designer of sophisticated Internet website customization.
Making an attempt to pigeonhole Unger into specific categories however can at best be a fleeting snapshot of a tremendously creative man. With a radar-like brain that begins scanning the horizon for the next big thing at the moment his first waking blinks allow in the day’s dawn, it is a safe bet that something new will have captured his focus by noon.
“When I wake up,” he said, “I first think of the things that must be done, those that should be done and those I feel like doing.”
This daybreak philosophy has worked well for the forty-year-old who grew up on Torch Lake, and started out as a poet and graphic designer. Some Antrim residents might remember his father, the former Probate Judge.
The John T. Unger studio, workshop and home are on the east side of M66 just south of Eddy School Road outside of Mancelona. At first glance, the unknowing observer might not assume this is the source of success that has come to the artist. An eye that is keener and less prejudiced will notice metal sculptures in various stages of completion and a line of large, cut, rust-ensconced bowls.
These bowls, called “The Great Bowls of Fire”, have brought Unger reward for many hard years of work and dedication toward one of his passions,
The bowls are made from the ends of propane tanks, the large “pigs” that are common sights throughout the county.
“One day I was ‘shopping’ in a scrap yard (not uncommon for a metal sculptor) and saw one of these tank ends cut off and I asked myself, ‘What else could this be?’ How could I misinterpret this in a useful manner?’ That’s when I got the idea,” Unger said.
The results are large bowls, the edges of which are plasma-cut into flames, waves and other attractive designs. There is a hole cut in the bottom for water drainage, and they are perfect chalices for fire. Customers have placed them in gardens and decks. They build in them fires of wood, and some rig them for gas, especially those in commercial settings.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and E-commerce, they can be found in private homes, restaurants and hotels around the world. Unger cited orders that have come from Ireland, England, the Caribbean, and Hawaii as examples. Originally sold in galleries, 95% of sales are now over the Internet and out of state. Demand for the bowls is on its way to a third year of 100% growth.
He described a kind of poetry that emerges when you think about using a fuel storage device for a product that encapsulates fire.
“There is a beautiful poetry about it,” he said. “This is the kind of pattern to look for in creativity. Pattern recognition is key. I’m not looking for what things are supposed to do. Instead, I try to figure out how to deal with constraints and make them work for me.”
In this case, the bowls have indeed worked for Unger. They have brought to him a significant level of financial reward, but have also opened new landscapes for adventure. A second side of the artist has emerged.
Unger became active as a blogger on the Internet.
“Blogging has made me a success,” he said.
“Blog” is a portmanteau or abridgement of the words “web log”. Blogs are sites on the Internet where information can be disseminated, and where interaction about topics can be shared.
“I started because I just wanted better software,” he said.
That initiation has eventuated in his becoming a sought-after analyst and designer of websites. He has authored tutorials that allow people to customize and improve their websites with nonstandard characteristics. They are called “coding” tutorials.
He summarized, “Like my art, this is another case of reinterpreting something I see. I get paid rather well for being me and having fun.”
That statement should not be taken as a shallow quip. John T. Unger has paid his dues.
His success began with collapse. In 1999, he suffered through the catastrophic cave in of the “dot-com” industry, and lost his job. The year after, while removing the snow from his roof (a foreclosed, shaky, one-time minimart), that roof collapsed.
He remembered, “I literally rode it down.” He continued, “I found myself in an unheated building, in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere. I started doubting myself and I thought about quitting my art.”
Ironically, it was art that lead to his revival. It was a deal he made with the bank that held the financing of the collapsed home for some of his art that began his road back.
The lesson here he said, “Is to be willing to work hard, fail and not give up.” Soon, he began buying the equipment he needed to do his metal work. He currently is enjoying a more secure base.
On the horizon for Unger is a continuation of the “fire bowls”. He now employs three people to help in that effort. He is looking at developing a venture capital fund for artists. He also is working in the area of public art where communities can become actively involved. He sees a website that allows design and input, but also supports funding and solicitation for public art.
“I’d like to do more intellectual work (systems and ideas) as time goes on,” he said.
He includes on that intellectual horizon working with the state of Michigan in the area of economic development, utilizing his Internet expertise.
As you drive by or stop at the gallery, see if you can kick your ability to envision to a level that approaches Mr. Unger’s. His plan for the site is a three-story structure that will serve as his home and workshop. It will be made of glass and six, forty-foot shipping containers.
“I’ve dreamed of this design for 12 years. Every time I get told ‘no’, it makes me work harder. One way or another, this will happen.”
Take time to meet John T. Unger, and see if you doubt his ambitions.
Unger invites you to visit his website: www.johntunger.com, and you are welcome to call him at 231-584-2710. He asks that you remember that he works from 9:00-5:00, Pacific Time.
In other words, don’t call before noon.
Kessler, Jeffray. “Man of Steel.” Antrim County News 23 July 2008: 3A.