PARIS — Near-death experiences aren’t the main sources of inspiration for Ethil Merman’s pieces, but when a crane falls from the sky, it’s bound to leave an impression — in one form or another.
The artist, whose pieces are almost entirely made from recycled metal and wood materials, was working on a job site when an improperly installed bolt came loose, sending steel raining from the sky.
“After that, I’m thinking, if I were in a little different place, I’d be dead,” Merman said.
He scampered away, but still remembers the sight well. Now, in honor — or unforgettable memory — a four-foot replica made from a patchwork of refurbished metals adorns a studio cramped with his whimsical pieces.
Merman, 50, going by an assumed name similar to ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’, runs Merman’s Metal Sculpture on Briggs Avenue in Paris where his dedication for using recycled materials fuses an artistic vision replete with man’s industrial history.
Rather than seeing the goods end up in a landfill or churning the wheels of consumer society he’s opted out of, Merman makes playful miniatures — from tractors to motorcycles and a hot air balloon — with the same industrial pieces the materials originated from.
After spending most of his life around the south shore of Boston, Merman moved to Paris nearly two decades ago with the birth of his daughter. Both wife and daughter — known as the mermaid and merling — are respected artists in their own fields.
At the heart of all his assemblages is the repurposed pieces he delights in finding a new way to give life to. A streamlined motorcycle is made of Rupp wheels. Broken table legs gracefully curve into forms, while its front wheel came from decidedly slower beginnings — a baby carriage.
Art is an important way of showing how important recycling is.
“A lot of people love the message but don’t know how to do it,” he said.
Inspiration works two ways. Sometimes he’ll start with an idea and find the perfect bicycle wheel or steel plate — while other times a notable piece will fall into his lap and almost demand a form spring from it.
Above his workshop in a games room, a “fifth-generation” newel post once supporting a spiral staircase has taken on life again as a baluster.
“It’s in retirement,” he joked.
Outside in a steel garden leading into his workshop — lit at night by alien-looking industrial parking lot lamps — a blimp formed from old barrel hoops, woks and part of an air conditioner hangs from a metal chain, pushed along by a breeze.
While his job as a carpenter pays most of the bills, the profession helps feed a supply of new materials. Other times, friends and antique dealers tip him off to a potential treasure trove.
His latest creation retrofitted a 1963 Piper Cherokee small-engine plane into a camper. He wants to make a treehouse but as it’s not watertight — he’s waiting to find the right the plastics — he’s been testing it as impromptu sleeping quarters.
“It always turns heads,” Merman said. You wouldn’t believe the number of people with airplane stories.”