By Katie Elyce Jones
Sculptor Cameron Kite wants you to be a little nervous when you look at his work. You might even take a step back because you think it will tip over. Is that thousand pounds of steel about to come crashing down on the museum floor? No, it’s not going to fall—and that’s what makes it deliberate art, a conscientiously wrought plan by its maker.
“I’m trying to add a kinetic element without actually having something move,” said Kite, a senior in UT’s School of Art sculpture program. “I’m obsessed with pushing things to their visual limit so that when someone observes it, there’s a magic to how it’s staying up in the first place.”
Kite specializes in repurposing materials “that you have to bend to your will”—like steel scraps, rebar, and tie rods—and often juxtaposes them with organic materials like rope and wood or displays them in natural settings.
His sculptures are turning up frequently around Knoxville, having been exhibited at the 1010 Gallery, UT’s Ewing Gallery, the Knoxville Convention Center, and UT Gardens. But his visual message is stretching beyond the borders of Tennessee with displays in Raleigh, North Carolina; Brooklyn, New York; and Fukuoka, Japan.
In 2015, Kite received an Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture honorable mention from the International Sculpture Center for a portfolio submission of several of his pieces.
Kite’s arts education began long before he enrolled at UT. As a child he would watch his mother “weave, knit, sew, spin, and turn a sheet into clothing.” He describes his family as “master seamstresses, jewelers, woodworkers, hobbyists, tinkerers, and engineers.” Kite said he always wanted to change things with his hands as a kid and was interested in the local arts and crafts community.
Interestingly, the artist began his academic journey as a musician studying the clarinet. A roommate eventually convinced him to switch to art after looking at some of his sketches. Before he knew he wanted to sculpt, Kite had started working as a handyman to help pay for his musical education. He wound up taking some time off from school and launched a painting and flooring business with a friend.
“I got interested in making things again,” he said. “It was gratifying at the end of the day to make, alter, and change things with my hands.”
The business was a crash course in using tools, woodworking, electrical repair, and client relationships. He learned how to help people figure out what they wanted something to look like, then execute it with the materials and tools at hand.
When Kite returned to UT, he decided to switch gears and major in sculpture. But he is also drawn to science—particularly particle physics—and nature. He talks about physical boundaries and motion in terms of science as well as art. “How things hold together . . . the boundary between particles is virtually nonexistent . . . electrons work differently when they’re observed than when they’re not, which is kind of the way art works in general. . . . Not to sound too hippie about it,” Kite quipped.
Because he was already familiar with the tools of the trade, Kite was immediately able to focus on what impression he wanted his art to have. He studied minimalist sculptors and painters like Richard Serra, who sculpts larger-than-life contours of sheet metal; Tennessee native Robert Ryman and his natural-hued monochrome paintings of subtle lines and textures; and Dan Flavin, who uses fluorescent installations to create sculptural effects with colorful light.
Kite was inspired by Serra when he created the pieces We Hold It Together and I Can Keep It Together, which are temporary slings suspending hundred-pound metal rods in natural settings. Each title is a literal description of the sculpture as well as a metaphorical invitation to meditate on the rigid lines against the soft natural background.
After setting up a few renegade exhibitions in Knoxville, Kite decided to place one near a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. “Backpacking one of these steel rods across the mountain was not fun,” he proclaimed.
When Kite tried to display a set like We Hold It Together in a gallery, his mission was underscored. “There was one show where we had to take them down because [the gallery staff] was concerned it would fall on the floor,” he said. “Which was actually gratifying, because that meant it had the effect I wanted.”
The Bascot, a piece formerly displayed at UT Gardens, also gives the observer a sense that the lumbering structure is dangerously close to a tipping point. The seven-foot, 1,200-pound assemblage of scrap steel includes a waist-high quadrant from a huge gear and a head like a giant light socket that holds a bouquet of dozens of carefully balanced rebar rods. Kite cut out a wavy pattern in the curved body of the piece with a plasma cutter to add another element of motion.
“When you think something is about to fall, it creates an anxiety that adds something to your experience,” Kite said. “There’s a potential energy that you feel.”
Some of his weighty feats of balance also speak to a different kind of balance—the equilibrium between manufactured and natural architecture. Kite’s aptly named sculpture Intuitive Balance is a horizontal wood plane anchored to the floor with tie rods on one side and suspended above the floor on the other, sprouting silver-white baby’s breath.
As Kite prepares to start his career in full force, he is focused on private commissions to build functional and specialty pieces—like bookshelves and stair railings for houses—and commissions for art in public spaces. So if you’re out and about and feel a nervous jolt from the captivating sculpture ahead, look for Kite’s name.