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Q&A: Local artist Thomas Sterner wants people to ‘think, and smile, and feel connected’ with his work

Artist Thomas Sterner, right, helps guide his sculpture onto its base as workers from the City of Westminster move it into position at the corner of West Main and Bond Streets in Westminster Wednesday, May 15, 2019.
Artist Thomas Sterner, right, helps guide his sculpture onto its base as workers from the City of Westminster move it into position at the corner of West Main and Bond Streets in Westminster Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Dylan Slagle)

Thomas Sterner works every day from his studio named Art Factory in Silver Run, and his nature-based sculptures have found homes across the state. Carroll County boasts Sterner’s first public piece with his “Sprouts” design, that is visible at the corner of Main and Bond streets in downtown Westminster.

Sterner grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania and later secured a degree in fine arts from Kutztown University, but didn’t become a full-time artist until 2014. He showcases his work in several galleries, and has one taking place at NOMA Gallery in Frederick through Nov. 1. Sterner has also served on the board of the Carroll County Art Council, which he rejoined in 2015.

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The Times caught up with Sterner to talk about how he got started on a lifelong journey into art, why he prefers nature for his inspiration, and the challenges of keeping up with work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: When did you first realize you had a knack for being an artist?

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A: In middle school I drew cartoons for the school paper, and my high school art teacher recognized my skills and challenged me to get better, and was the catalyst for me to study art in college, and I really excelled in that environment.

Q: Was it difficult finding your artistic voice before becoming full-time in 2014?

A: I maintained a studio space and actively showed my artwork, even while working full-time at Western Maryland College, then Laser Applications, getting married and having a family. When I became a full-time artist, I fulfilled my dream, and I guess my artistic voice became louder.

Q: How did purchasing your own welder in 2018 change how you work?

A: I was recruited to submit a proposal for an outdoor wooden sculpture for Hagerstown in 2018, because I was working in wood. In the end, the selection committee had concerns about the black locust wood being vandalized in a public space; I was not selected and I knew that if I wanted to make outdoor public sculptures that I needed to work in metal. I was familiar with laser welding from working at Laser Applications at the Carroll County Airport industrial complex, but I had never welded using [Metal Inert Gas] or [Tungsten Inert Gas]. I went to a friends house and tried MIG and loved it, and bought my welder the next day, and used it to construct my first public sculpture, “Sprouts” for Westminster.

Q: Has nature always been part of your artwork and ideas?

A: Yes. I was a backpacker and rock climber in high school and college, and have always loved nature and incorporated it into my artwork. Many of my past solo exhibits reflect that: “Shaking the Tree” at Scott Gallery in 2018 was mostly carved wooden pieces. I love the irony of carving wood into tree imagery, and immortalizing it. At NOMA, the exhibits “Sticks and Stones” in 2017 and “Life and Limb” in 2020 are all nature-based pieces.

Q: Where are the best places in Carroll County to gather inspiration for projects?

A: I am fortunate to live in a beautiful place, and my home and studio are surrounded by forest and pasture. My inspiration however, comes primarily from ideas rather than the landscape directly, and I love broad concepts of subjects such as: sprouting seeds, the life cycle of leaves, the zen of gathering sticks, the power of the elements, and our connection to nature. My goal is to make people think, and smile, and feel connected.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and work environment?

A: I just had an opening reception at NOMA in Frederick on Oct 3 for the “Life and Limb” show. Of course, there was no food or refreshments served, and masks were worn by all. Attendance was lower than normal, but better than expected with less than 20 people in the gallery at any given time, 100 people filtered through. I will be at the gallery on consecutive weekends to give others a chance to see the show and meet the artist and be safe. Regarding the pandemic’s affect on the large projects, I had been selected to produce the huge stainless steel sculpture for Carroll Creek Park, “Water Lily Wave,” in February.

The immediate impact of shutdowns caused by the pandemic was to slow the commissions and agencies that I needed the necessary approvals and permits to begin the project. I finally began welding in June, but then had to work seven days a week from dawn until dusk to complete it in time for installation in mid September. Oddly, 2020 has been my busiest year of making art, as I begin my third large sculpture. Since I work alone from my studio, the pandemic has not affected the actual art making.

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Q: Speaking of projects, what’s next for you?

A: I am just beginning the companion stainless steel sculpture to “Water Lily Wave” for Carroll Creek Park, called “Water Lily Swirl.” It is a 32-foot-long piece that will show movement and growth, and provide a way-finding gateway sculpture for pedestrians entering the park. I expect to complete it in six weeks.

And after installing it, I will clean up my studio and get ready to open it for the Carroll County Artists Studio Tour on Dec. 5-6 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then I will be making kinetic sculptures for a show in 2021 called “Mobiles and Stabiles” at Tevis Gallery in the Arts Center in Westminster, with Charlie Maiorana. I am always busy, though I may take a break in the summer of 2021 to travel.

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