We called him the Aluminum Man, not because of the materials he salvaged but because of his coat. Once a bright metallic silver, its time on the streets had given it a dark patina that made him appear to be encased in one of the aluminum cans he gathered. He was a familiar sight in Handley, pushing his grocery cart back and forth along a seemingly random route. “He’s harmless,” everyone told us. “He’ll be around for a while, then the cops will pick him up during one of their periodic sweeps and he’ll go away but he always comes back.”
Located between Dallas and Fort Worth on a major transcontinental highway, Handley was a vital blue-collar community in 1946 with a thriving business district and a rail station. Then forcible annexation by Fort Worth and the construction of an interstate highway that bypassed it meant the town withered and deteriorated. But lack of interest often means lack of change, and from a historical point of view that can be a good thing. Fifty years after the annexation, our search for storefront property led us to Handley and a central business district whose historic structures of the early 1900s were virtually intact.
My wife, Bettye, and I decided Handley needed an art gallery, and it was during our year-long renovation effort that we first noticed The Aluminum Man. He was about 6 feet tall but stooped, of indeterminate age, dark skinned and, regardless of the weather, usually sporting a black watch cap and his coat. As we worked inside we often would find him watching us through the front window. If we would acknowledge his presence with a smile or wave, he would avert his gaze and move on, but he always came back to watch.
After the gallery opened, he remained a frequent visitor, staring through the window at whatever adorned the walls. During evening receptions we would often see his ghostly gray figure in the light that spilled out onto the sidewalk. Ours is a contemporary art gallery featuring painting, sculpture and prints as well as installations, found-object assemblage and other nontraditional works. This type of work can challenge our very conceptions about art, but regardless of the subject matter the Aluminum Man was a regular visitor. We often wondered what it was that brought him back day after day. He didn’t seem to pay much attention to his surroundings at other times, eyes fixed resolutely on the ground as he searched for his next treasure. Certainly the view through our window was much different from anything he saw elsewhere in the neighborhood. So it was probably just curiosity that fueled his visits, we decided.
As we were installing our first clay show, composed of abstract sculpture, hand-built containers and other objects that were far from the bowls, vases and pots of the traditional potter, we noticed the Aluminum Man watching us several times. During the opening reception, I briefly saw him at the window.
After the last guest had left, Bettye went out onto the front sidewalk to see if any clean-up was needed. A couple minutes later she called to me, “Don, come here. You’ve got to see this.” I came out the door and fell silent when I saw what she was pointing to. There, arranged just so, was a tiny sculpture.
The piece was constructed of found objects; it appeared to be a vehicle of some kind. It has wheels made of washers and aluminum can ring pulls, and a bit of plastic for a windshield. We both immediately knew who had made it. Separated though he was from the rest of society, The Aluminum Man was still connected to it by that thread of humanity that we call art. Inspired by others, he offered his own creation to the world as testament to his existence.
Left outside the gallery, separated from the rest by the glass and illuminated dimly by the light from inside, it symbolized its creator who existed outside the everyday world and was barely seen by that world’s inhabitants. Contemporary art is an easy target for ridicule, dealing as it does with controversy in subject matter, materials and concepts. But I wonder if any other kind of art could have moved the Aluminum Man to expression. For months he had seen artists professing that even the discards of society possess beauty and value. As one of society’s discards, set loose to wander unseen and ignored, did it have special meaning to him to see the objects of his world treated with reverence and respect?
The Aluminum Man’s gift to us on that evening was tangible evidence of the power of art to reach man’s soul. It’s a gift that we are not often privileged to receive.
We haven’t seen the Aluminum Man in some time now. I hope that means he’s found his way back into society, but I fear that is only wishful thinking. We keep the Aluminum Man’s sculpture in a special place, and it serves as a constant reminder, in this age when art is considered a luxury, that not all of man’s needs are physical. The spirit must also be nourished.
Don Hicks is an engineer, writer and teacher who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife and two dogs. They own a contemporary fine arts gallery in the Handley district of East Fort Worth.