"The Next Big Thing" is a piece by Rob Millard-Mendez that will be featured in the Wassenberg Art Center. The piece which was made in 2012 includes several found object like wooden Scrabble tiles and plastic chattering novelty teeth. (Photo submitted)
"The Next Big Thing" is a piece by Rob Millard-Mendez that will be featured in the Wassenberg Art Center. The piece which was made in 2012 includes several found object like wooden Scrabble tiles and plastic chattering novelty teeth. (Photo submitted)

BY ERIN COX

DHI Media Staff Writer

ecox@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT — Plastic fruit, mousetraps, matchsticks, and oven mitts are some of the various materials in the artwork created by Rob Millard-Mendez, the artist whose work will be featured in the new exhibit coming to the Wassenberg Art Center on Saturday.

Millard-Mendez, a found object sculptor and professor at the University of Southern Indiana, has exhibited his work in more than 400 exhibitions all across the United States and 15 solo exhibitions. The Wassenberg Art Center will showcase his work beginning Saturday until Sept. 27 with an opening reception 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday where Millard-Mendez will briefly talk about his work in the exhibit and as a found object sculptor.

“I think there is an innate poetry in a lot of objects that can often go unnoticed due to them being forgettable, or seemingly ubiquitous, or just unremarkable,” Millard-Mendez said. “I’ll often find something that I think has some kind of a resonance or a sense of beauty or history to it that I can’t pass up. Oftentimes those things will make their way into my sculptures and I’ll try to play off of some of their own senses of history and some of the innate beauties, but also their sense of being used by somebody.”

The found objects can be objects like mousetraps and oven mitts, or in some cases it is just wood.

“There’s a ton of pallet companies and places that come up with a lot of discarded wood. Sometimes I’ll use stuff that’s cast off material but it’s so transformed that people don’t really notice that it’s a ‘found object’,” he said.

The found objects are just materials he uses to make his sculptures while the meaning behind the work does not necessarily have to do with those objects. As a self-proclaimed talk radio and podcast addict, Millard-Mendez uses what he listens to as inspiration for his artwork as well as what he has come across during his 10 years as a professor.

“Most of the ideas of the things that I have are meant to be a sarcastic or humorous take, or an angle on every day experiences,” he said.

“I’m also really into mythology as well,” he added. “There’s a lot of things that make subtle or sometimes not so subtle references to old time mythologies, mainly classical, but other ones can work their way in there as well.”

Millard-Mendez has showcased his work in all 50 states in more than 400 exhibitions.

“I find that my solo exhibitions tend to be stronger if I have a theme,” he said while noting he generally uses a similar subject matter for his work throughout a solo exhibition. “For me I feel like there has to be a thematic coherence to the whole group of works.”

The exhibit at Wassenberg Art Center is based on boats.

“Sometimes the boat is de-emphasized. Sometimes it’s emphasized as a form. Everything has a tie-in with the idea of boat,” he said. Millard-Mendez, who now lives in Evansville, Indiana, grew up around boats living in Massachusetts and his father who was a commercial fisherman.

His sculptures to be shown at the Wassenberg Art Center have an aspect for everyone to enjoy. Millard-Mendez has shown his work and talked about it with children as young as pre-kindergarten.

“People even as young as that will get something out of the work even if it’s just the bright colors and the cartoonish aesthetic that is often present in the work,” he said.

“I think people should expect to see stuff that I hope will make them laugh,” he continued. “I’m always trying to blend a sense of humor in to the objects and I have a really strong interest in fine craft, too, so even if they’re really ridiculous objects, they’re made really beautifully if that’s part of the idea.”

His refined abilities and unusual materials to make his sculptures is what caught the eye of Hope Wallace, the executive director of the Wassenberg Art Center.

“His use of normal every day objects like mousetraps and wooden rulers or beads and his refined technique of using those materials,” Wallace said is why she had a gut reaction to his exhibit as one that was relevant and could make an impact. “I’d seen found object sculpture before and it’s awesome, but his is actually manipulated in a way that is more finished sculptural. It’s more refined.”

The opening reception on Saturday will feature music by The Blues Revelers, as well as a taco buffet, desserts, and a cash bar.

“I thought it was a good fit for the artwork,” Wallace said of choosing The Blues Revelers. “They’re a Celtic, bluegrass, folk band, more Celtic, folk I would say. They have their own songs, their own originals that they write and they’re just a lot of fun. I think their unique instruments are a good blend with the sculptures.”

Millard-Mendez encourages all to come to the reception. As the first person to go to college in his family, Millard-Mendez understands people’s reaction regarding fine arts, especially since his own family asked him what he could do with his art degree.

“Even though I deal in fine arts every day and I’m a college professor, I’m a very approachable person who has a very skeptical stance on the exclusivity of fine art.” Millard-Mendez said. “I find something to talk about with everyone. Don’t be scared off because it’s a ‘fine arts’ show.”

Even through his use of found objects, Millard-Mendez steps on the line between fine art and popular art.

“My work really aims to put a spin on the idea of fine art versus popular art,” Millard-Mendez said. “Bridging that gap or playing with the spaces between is something I find really fun.”