Auto Body Worker Finds Success as Sculptor

By Dirk Perrefort

Ridgefield - Jim Felice loves restoring vintage automobiles and working on custom hot rods, but his creative impulses yearned for something more.

It was about 20 years ago that Felice, the owner of Felice Auto Body in South Salem, NY, combined his auto body skills and his desire for artistic expression to begin creating his own unique sculptures.

"I was just looking for a creative avenue and started making things," said Felice, whose dream was to become a musician before his need to support his family and a passion for cars drove him into the auto body business.

"I met some artists in the area who served as my mentors, and I just got the bug. I've been working on my own pieces ever since."

About five years ago Felice was restoring other sculptures in the rgion when his restoration work began to pay off. Felice also worked on his own pieces in his spare time.

"It just started to grow and grow," he said. "Now that's pretty much all I do."

"I still work on some cars here and there if it's a project I'm really interested in. I have a 1959 Triumph TR3 that I might work o nthis winter. I still like working on cars. I don't want to let that go."

Although the skills Felice learned through the auto body trade - including metal cutting, welding and painting - serve him well as a sculptor, the two are not interchangeable.

"You can have the skills, but you really need to have the creative impulse to turn those skills into a work of art," he said. "Nobody can teach you how to be creative."

Carter Boyajian, gallery director at the Sculpture Barn in New Fairfield, said Felice's work could be described as a contemporary version of the assemblage art form, because he creates sculptures out of objects that he finds and he also creates his own objects.

Assemblage is defined as taking everyday objects and assembling them to make a statement.

"Felice is an assemblage artist, but I don't think he ever intended to be," Boyajian said. "He fabricates some of his objects and sometimes uses auto body paint on his work, which makes his pieces look really slick."

Felice is one of three artists whose work is on display at the Sculpture Barn this month as part of the "Assemblage: Fragments of Urban Culture" exhibition.

Some of Felice's pieces in the show include "shields," which are automobile hoods and trunk lids colored with poured paint.

"I use different materials to manipulate the paint as it flows," he said. "Sometimes I call it the great chace. You really have to wrestle with it sometimes."

Felice will also be showing for the first time several pieces that will eventually be part of a larger outdoor display he calls "Clown Wedding." The concept began to germinate in his head after a local junk dealer dropped off a metal archway at his shop.

"It sat outside for a while," he said. "Then one day I had this kind of funny but also serious notion of creating a clown wedding under the arch."

The installation at the gallery will include the "Ringmaster" under the arch as well as the bride, groom, maid of honor and best man.

Eventually, Felice would like to create 40 members of the audience and a clown choir. The installation wouldn't be complete without a clown car in the background.

"I though the show would be a great way to introduce the concept to the public," Felice said.

Other artists featured in the show are Baltimore resident Robert Alholm, whose assemblages are often described as humorous, and Ridgefield resident David Gelfman.

Gelman said he draws his inspiration from his fascination with machinery and how things work. "Most of my work has a mechanical element to it," he said.

Boyajian said most of Gelfman's work can be described as a constructivism form of assemblage, because he manufactures most of the objects he uses.

"He takes all these parts and assembles them to create some kind of mechanism that usually has a kinetic element to it," she said.

Despite his success with sculpture, Felice said he still has a desire to return to his creative roots in music.

"Sometimes I look at myself and wonder why am I doing this," he said. "I'm really a musician at heart."

Works by Felice, Gelfman and Alholm will be on display at the Sculpture Barn, on Milltown Road on the Danbury/New Fairfield town line, through October 7.