For Joliet sculptor Charles Ringer, ‘my lifestyle is my art’

A lot of people are familiar with the work of Charlie Ringer, a metal sculptor who has lived in Joliet for almost 45 years.

He figures he’s created more than 5,000 works of art, some of which are in galleries, corporate collections and museums across the country. Countless thousands of people have toured his gallery in Joliet or driven past his property just east of the gallery, fronted by large, whimsical metal sculptures like “The Creature,” dubbed “The Snow God” by skiers and snowboarders on their way to Red Lodge Mountain.

For Ringer himself, though, there is something more important than the pieces of art he has been creating for 50 years. What matters to him is that he has managed to create a place for himself in the world where he can work and relax and create and think on his own schedule, in his own way.

“My lifestyle is my art,” he says. “Everything else is a byproduct.”

Because he created a lifestyle, a place where he could be what he wanted to be, the 66-year-old artist has never, ever, worked an 8-to-5 job. He says he is able to get so much done precisely because there is no clear line between work and leisure, because he has worked so deliberately to remain outside “the system.”

“There’s not enough time in the day to do what I do,” he says. “You’re just being, and being is all you need to be.”

The place where he does most of his being is the six-acre property he shares with his wife Emily in Joliet. They started with a third of an acre, an old auto junkyard and a brick structure built as a creamery by the WPA in 1936, then slowly expanded their holdings as neighbors moved away or passed on.

One of the most notable features of the property, in the big back yard behind the house and studio, is a large sculpture, “UFO,” surrounded by extraterrestrials likewise made of steel. It’s intriguing to imagine what aliens would think if they did land in the Ringers’ backyard. They’d probably think they’d found a damned interesting planet.

UFO

John Warner

“UFO,” with its contingent of extraterrestrials, sits in the Ringers’ expansive backyard.

There is the original shop, cramped, low-ceilinged and crammed with heavy-duty metalworking machinery, including lathes, trip hammers and drills. Next to it is the much larger garage Ringer built six or seven years ago, full of more tool and parts, a mannequin or two and old gas-station signs.

A side door on the garage leads to the “fun room,” a space stuffed with hood ornaments, hubcaps, Ringer’s grandfather’s billiard table, old business signs, gas pumps, slot machines, a big safe, musical instruments, pinball machines, motorcycles (Ringer favors BMWs), jukeboxes, more mannequins, clocks, costumes and oriental rugs.

Tucked in behind the fun room is a vault-like chamber containing thousands of records—78s, 33s and 45s—and CDs, plus another collection of vintage pinball machines. Upstairs in this building is the Ringers’ original habitation, a series of relatively small rooms reminiscent of a ship’s living quarters.

In one cranny is a built-in crib with a roll-down window from a 1960 Ford Falcon. In the kitchen area are three handmade light fixtures, one fashioned from an oil pan, one from a hubcap and air cleaner, and the third from a driveshaft and exhaust pipes.

“We used the cars because we didn’t have any money back then,” Ringer says, which you know is only partly true, since all these years later he’s still making things from car parts, drawn by their durability and their utilitarian beauty.

Elsewhere on the property are six fire pits, a hand-dug pond fed by an artesian well, heaps of scrap metal and ancient farm equipment, an old cabin the Ringers disassembled, moved and rebuilt, an assortment of aging trucks and cars, and a bus that once hauled workers from Red Lodge to the mines in Bear Creek.

There are sheds and sculptures, a tepee ring and in one corner the dilapidated remains of an old piano.

“I’m gonna catapult that,” Ringer says, nodding toward the piano. “As soon as I get the catapult built.” Is he joking? With Ringer, it’s hard to tell.

New kinetic

John Warner

One of Ringer’s kinectic geometric sculptures sits in front of a picture window in his gallery.

There is also a long building with multiple garage doors. Inside is a collection of vintage vehicles, most of them shrouded with dust so thick it’s hard to determine make or model. On racks behind the cars and piled up in rows between them are auto parts, duct work, heaps of lumber, bottles, horse harnesses, light fixtures and stereo speakers.

And in the garage there are two key pieces of Charlie and Emily’s life together: a 1969 Ford Econoline van and a homemade trailer, about the size of a sheepwagon, that was Ringer’s mobile studio for many years. They lived in the van and worked out of the trailer-studio for a couple of years as they traveled the West, spending winters in the southwest and summers up north.

They met in Colorado, where they were both briefly college students, and got married in 1969; the van was a wedding present. In the beginning, Ringer used nothing but a torch and hand tools to create small, intricate figurines of people engaged in various activities, usually with a comic twist.

In 1971, after having spent some bitter winter months in Ringer’s parents’ cabin up the West Fork of Rock Creek near Red Lodge, they were heading out for more travels but got no farther than Joliet, barely 25 miles from Red Lodge. The old junkyard there had a “for sale” sign on it.

“And so, for 6,700 bucks, we bought this place,” Ringer says.

They figured they needed a centralized home base. Minnesota was too cold, the Southwest was too hot and California, Ringer says, was too crazy. He also wanted to stay out of the art world, but be close enough to observe it and make what use of it he could. He learned early in life to distrust the art world for the same reason he distrusts most institutions in this “ass-kissing world.”

Whirling

John Warner

Ringer said this fish sculpture in untitled, but he jokingly suggested “Whirling Disease.”

Without naming names or going into specifics, he says the professional art world wants to control and package artists, to make them conform to rules and customs that benefit the art world but do little to advance the cause of art.

“That’s probably why there’s so much turmoil in the world,” he says. “Everyone is structuring everyone else.”

And so in Joliet, he and Emily and then their three children built a world for themselves. It was fitting that the property had been a junkyard. When Ringer was 5 years old, growing up outside of Minneapolis with a businessman father and an artist mother, he was allowed to walk with his wagon to a dump a mile and a half away. He’d gather anything that caught his eye, then bring it home and make something with it.

“That led to the need to learn how to weld,” he says, and when he was 14 he and his mother took a creative welding class together. He made his first car when he was 15—a 1930 Ford Model A with a Dodge hammerhead engine—and he’s still got it.

It took the Ringers three years to cut up and haul away more than 100 cars in the junkyard. They lived in the van for the first year, while they built living quarters onto the shop, and the shop itself grew over time. Ringer says he acquired tools and equipment as he discovered a need for them, “as opposed to buying a shop full of crap you don’t know what to do with.”

And they continued collecting, buying curios and beautiful objects at secondhand stores and flea markets as they traveled around to deliver Ringer’s art works, or to participate in art shows and gallery events.

“For us, one thing led to the next thing. The next big thing,” Ringer says.

“We do understand that we’re immoderate,” Emily says. “We do collect a lot of crap.”

But there’s an important distinction to make, Charlie adds, gesturing around at a lifetime of gatherings: “You surround yourself with this stuff and it’s real stuff. Not like all this cheap stuff you buy these days.”

Trailer

John Warner

Ringer relaxes in his garage full of old cars and trucks. To his left is the original trailer-studio he worked out of for several years.

Though it might all look haphazard, he says, it serves a purpose. It goes back to the idea of making a space for working, for living. “It’s memories, but it’s also unfinished business,” Emily says, meaning there is always some project to work on, something that needs to be done.

As Ringer says, “When I’m lacking in ideas of what to do, I just wander.”

Not that he is lacking in ideas too often. For years, his bread-and-butter pieces have been kinetic silhouettes of animals, people, vehicles, musical instruments and much, much more—hand-cut steel sculptures that move by means of pendulum mechanisms. But the “serious stuff,” the works that keep him awake, are the kinetic geometric sculptures that are a marvel of complex moving parts.

The ideas for these usually come at night, in “barrages,” he says. He’ll lie awake for hours, thinking of all the parts and making countless decisions and slowly building the piece in his mind. He doesn’t need to sketch out his plans because the blueprints are in his head.

“For me, it’s like a religious experience to have this mental thought come into a physical form.” But even the form itself, the thing that thought becomes, isn’t the crux of what he does.

“What I’ve found over the years is that having a finished product is not where it’s at,” Ringer says. “It’s the process of having a finished product that’s the coolest thing. … It’s like a steppingstone. I feel privileged to be part of this, whatever this is.”

He describes his relationship with his art, with the creative process, in quasi-mystical terms.

“Everything I’ve done is testing, trial and error, experimentation,” he says. “And it somehow connects you with the greater, infinite situation out there, right off of this planet. It gives you a direct connection.”

Ringer says he doesn’t know where he was before he was born, if anywhere, or where he’ll go after he dies, but he thinks he knows what we’re supposed to do with the “little span of time in between: it’s for critical thinking, and being inquisitive. It’s all trained out of you in schools these days. They don’t let you have duct tape and a cardboard box and an imagination anymore.”

And why are we here at all, “flying through the universe on a chunk of dirt”? Ringer’s not sure, but he figures there must be a reason for it. We have hands that move and are able manipulate tools, and we have brains to direct what we do with our hands.

“It couldn’t be an accident,” he says. “It’s important business.”

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