Thirty Molten Minutes In The Strathcona Studio Of Artist Ricky Alvarez

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by Grady Mitchell | In a wood smoke-scented laneway studio in Strathcona, Ricky Alvarez tosses four or five ingots of silvery metal into a battered frying pan. With a click he lights the burner underneath and soon the ingots begin to slacken and slump into the pan. As they flatten into a mirror-like puddle, Ricky tells me how he came to start his design shop, Tinto Creative.

Born in Mexico City and raised in Ottawa, Ricky arrived in Vancouver five years ago. In Ontario he worked as a freelance window dresser, and when newly arrived on the west coast and wandering Chinatown one day, he came across a large, empty storefront display. It belonged to Blim, a family-run art supply store. “I love windows, because they’re this public/private space,” Ricky says. To him a window front represents an easy, casual way for the public to encounter art. He walked in and pitched Blim on a window installation.

Weeks later, the piece he did caught the eye of Craig Stanghetta. Craig and his team at Ste Marie have designed many of Vancouver’s most beloved interiors, among them Meat & Bread, Revolver, Ask for Luigi, Pizzeria Farina, Pidgin, Homer St. Cafe, and Clough Club among them. He brought Ricky on to build custom installations for his clients. The coffee map made of nails in Revolver, for example, is Ricky’s work, as is the endless neon doorway in Clough Club and the collection of gold and white sculptures in Pidgin.

By now the metal in the pan has spread into a pool. Ricky skims the top layer with a spoon and reveals a perfectly reflective surface, distorted only by the ripples crossing its liquid surface. Ricky will use the melted pewter to sand cast one segment of an enormous street map of Washington, DC, one of several installations commissioned by Earls restaurants as they expand into the States. Once complete, the Washington sculpture will comprise of dozens of pieces and weigh hundreds of pounds.

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One of Ricky’s projects hangs in the downtown Vancouver location of Earls; a massive ampersand sculpture built from hundreds of small padlocks. Along with the Washington commission, he’s building pieces for the Boston, Miami, and Chicago restaurants as well. The Boston one involves large brass panels criss-crossed with paper-thin laser engravings. The Chicago sculpture will incorporate deconstructed brass instruments as a nod to the city’s rich musical heritage.

But today he presses a shape – a foam reproduction encompassing about eight blocks of Washington’s complex street grid – into the sand – a highly-tuned mix of clay, sand and kitty litter – then pours the molten pewter into the grooves in the sand. Although it appears to solidify quickly, the metal still radiates intense heat. We let it sit for a few minutes and continue to talk.

“I’ve always been a maker and a tinkerer,” Ricky says. “I was always tearing apart things and collecting things.” With every new project he picks up another skill: carpentry, metal casting, laser etching, soldering. “I throw myself into it, and I fail, and I make mistakes, and I dial in how to do it,” he says. Once he’s got a new skill locked down, he can combine his myriad practices in even more inventive and interesting ways. In a way, each piece compounds the next.

Ricky shows me an early experiment in metal casting. It’s a hunk of pink Himalayan rock salt sunk in a disc of pewter. “It allows me to explore the material and figure out what’s the best use for it,” he says of these early attempts. “I might use this next month, or I might use it in ten years. But every project I see as a way of learning.”

The results of past experiments and the materials for future ones dot his studio: two hunks of glistening obsidian, an immaculate metal cube, translucent panels of plastic reflecting multicoloured light, some hanging planter prototypes made of rope and cement. In the workshop area are neatly stacked cans of spray paint, a tool bench and a baffling array of different tapes. You get the sense that if a whim strikes him, the means to act on it are always at hand.

But there’s more to his work than just a good idea, Ricky insists. The key to making a living as an artist is more about adapting and finding solutions than divine inspiration. That’s what draws him to client assignments, working within restrictions to create something he’s proud of. And the best inspiration, Ricky says, comes from the objects around him. In essence, his job is simple: “I let the material speak.”

To explore Ricky’s work, visit Tinto’s site.

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