Scrap Mettle

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By Steven Heller

Kevin O’Callaghan dares monumental projects into existence.

Photo by Mary Sherman. Reprinted from Monumental, courtesy Abrams

What some call junk—dilapidated Yugo cars, rotting carousel machinery, vintage monster-truck parts, manual typewriters, and all manner of wood, metal, plastic, and clay—is manna from heaven for Kevin O’Callaghan, the latest member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Each resurrected piece of material is another excuse for making conceptual, functional, and sculptural design. O’Callaghan is the chair of the School of Visual Arts’ 3-D design department and the midwife of monumental extravaganzas created by students—many of whom had never held a soldering gun or hammered a nail. His work was collected two years ago in a book titled Monumental—with an emphasis on the last two syllables, because it takes hubris and ego to make art and design from recycled materials like discarded church pews or New Jersey tollbooths. O’Callaghan often produces as many as five major exhibitions per year. I caught up with him between construction sites to ask why?

You’ve just been elected into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. I think you deserve it, especially as a design teacher. Do you think so?

I think I created opportunities for my students that they would never imagine they would have—all in the belief that if they can get through one of our projects, they will go on believing they can accomplish anything!

At what point in your life did you get the urge to make big things?

As far as BIG, in the sense of scale, I think it was my visit at age seven to the 1964 World’s Fair. I remember saying, “Wow, one big concept” (even though I didn’t know what a concept was)—countries competing creatively. I went home and built my own pavilion.

What was the first big school project?

That was my graduating portfolio case from the School of Visual Arts. I became frustrated with the process of dropping off my portfolio at different design studios. I had set up traps to confirm my belief that the studios never even opened up my portfolio. So I built a 20-foot-tall traditional black portfolio case in my mother’s driveway, complete with paintbrush, pencil, etc., reaching out of the top of the case. The case opened up to have approximately 8-by-8-foot printouts of my work, which I had convinced a local billboard company to print for me.

I towed my giant case on a trailer behind my car, a 1959 Nash, to my first interview with the great Milton Glaser, then at Push Pin Studios. I neglected to look into the height of the Midtown Tunnel (going into Manhattan) and my portfolio got stuck, thus causing a huge commotion and a lot of attention. I had to think quickly, and I let some air out of the tires and was able to get through the tunnel.

Arriving late to my interview, I was greeted by Mr. Glaser, slightly annoyed by my tardiness. When he asked where my portfolio was, I told him to go to the window. He immediately got on his intercom and instructed all of the designers at the studio to go outside to see my portfolio.

And was he impressed?

By this time, local media had heard about my Midtown Tunnel incident and showed up at Push Pin to cover the story. This led to a career-changing moment when People magazine did a full-page article on me that included a quote from Mr. Glaser that my portfolio was the best one he had ever seen.

To read the rest of this article, purchase the August 2012 issue of Print, or download a PDF version.