Hard Edges

New Tucsonan Kirk McCoy finds art in rhyolite

Twenty-five years ago, sculptor Kirk McCoy converted to stone.

He had been making constructed works, building up sculptures from assorted objects, along the lines of the Marcel Duchamp readymades he admired. But that was before he saw the stone art of Isamu Noguchi.

"I went to the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York," remembers McCoy, a former Long Islander who moved to Tucson last year.

Just an hour north of New York City, the sprawling outdoor museum is 500 acres of eastern woodlands meadows, forest and lawns, punctuated by landmark modern sculptures. McCoy was enchanted by such works as "The Arch," a 50-foot curve in black by Alexander Calder, until he glimpsed his first Noguchi on a hilltop. A granite Noguchi work commissioned to fit exactly into the slope, "Mamo Toro," measures a mammoth 9 by 34 by 21 feet.

"I saw that work and I knew, I just knew, I had to start working with stone," he says. "It's a stunning piece in gray-white, with black flecks. It's almost a birth piece, with a hollow toward the center, like eggshells after the chick has hatched. I just got it.

"He had an abstract way of addressing the stone that still says something."

Since that conversion on the hilltop, McCoy has worked primarily in stone. A handful of his works in rhyolite, also known as farrago, a brilliant white volcanic rock shot through with rusts and reds, are on view this month at Platform Gallery in the Warehouse Arts District. (The show also includes several wood pieces.)

The pedestal-size stone sculptures, about 18 inches high, are smooth and rough by turns. Part of his Spacescape series, evoking the spinning spheres and colors of outer space, they alternate between irregular organic shapes and geometric globes and stripes. "Emergent Moon" has a pristine egg shape--shades of Noguchi--colored in amber and nestled at the top of a smooth white column. In between, a rough-edged aureola in golden brown stripes the moon.

"Am I Going to Heaven, Hell or the Next Guggenheim?" follows the curve of the white rock the way it came out of the quarry. It's squatter than "Moon," and its white surface is tinted by passages of pale peach. But a slash of red-orange rust also runs through the rock, and McCoy has chiseled that rich vein into a three-dimensional arrow.

McCoy has no part in creating the distinctive colors; they're an intrinsic part of the beautiful stone, which is mined in eastern Nevada. But he responds to the shades embedded in the raw rock, and the color fields help determine the shapes. Nor does he mix and match his materials; every sculpture--with all its variation in texture and color--is chiseled out of a single piece of rock.

It took the artist a while to arrive at rhyolite as his preferred medium. Working at a variety of jobs on Long Island, including as a machinist and development engineer for defense contractors, and as a groundskeeper and operations manager at the Nassau County Museum of Art, he would poke around in masonry supply yards. He made his first stone work of green agate, "a beautiful little leaf."

When he came upon the rhyolite after a couple of years, "it just exploded for me," he says. "I've seen it in colors from deep cranberry to sky blue, a whole gamut of reds and browns, some golds, some bright yellows on occasion."

McCoy had long worked with his hands, so he was familiar with the tools stone-carving requires. And as a self-taught artist, he had no problem learning via manuals and trial and error to chisel into rock.

"I started off with hand tools--carbide-tipped chisels and diamond-encrusted chisels--and I designed some of my own tools." Sometimes now, he also uses power tools.

Rhyolite was fairly new on the market when McCoy discovered it.

"The guys were only starting to dig it out of the ground. I'd go to a masonry supply place, and I was the only one buying it."

But the rock didn't sell well, and when his regular supplier decided to stop carrying it, McCoy began buying in bulk from the source, a stone quarrying business in Utah just across the Nevada border. He showed the work in exhibitions on Long Island and elsewhere in New York state, but eventually, McCoy moved out to Utah, setting up a studio 20 miles from the quarry.

He wanted to make much bigger sculptures, and he figured he could work on bigger pieces of stone if he lived close by. Utah worked out for while; last fall, he got a one-person show, Red, White and Rhyolite: Sculpture of Kirk McCoy, at the St. George (Utah) Art Museum. But the lifelong New Yorker had trouble adjusting to his new state, he says, and he made the move to Tucson last year, settling into a studio near Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street. He started showing at the Tang Gallery in Bisbee, as well as at Platform.

"I love it here in Tucson," he says, "especially after the culture shock of Utah."

McCoy has also been trying out some regional materials, lately working in mesquite. "It's a gorgeous wood. Oh man! I'm having a lot of fun."

Still, stone remains his material of choice.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd be able to do this work," he says. The rhyolite is "elegant and simple." It brings a "beautiful hard-edged ethereal quality to my sculpture. I look at it and I smile."