Mark Coburn looks like the type of guy you’d spot while tavern-hopping on a Monday night in Anytown, U.S.A.: stone-washed denim jacket, boxy eyeglasses adorned with two golden nosebridges, shoulder-length mane of hair circling an expanding stretch of forehead, and a belly that sparks nostalgic allusions to past drinking stints. “When I get done paying alimony, I’m gonna open a place like this,” he says dreamily, pointing to a line of shops along Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, where, for now, he rents a finished basement room—Spartan sleeping quarters that double as a studio.
The 46-year-old construction worker sniffs out scrap wire on building sites and palms the occasional spool of soft annealed tie wire—used to secure structural reinforcement steel—for bending and twisting into figurative sculptures. His small palette of tools nearly matches the contents of his worn-leather workbelt—needle-nose pliers, a 7-inch side cutter, and a 9-inch lineman’s pliers.
A likeness of his second wife, wild-eyed and string-haired, is pinned to his back wall, enshrined in black steel. A mother shark inspired by a petroglyph discovered on Easter Island hangs in a corner devoted to underwater life—a giant squid, a miniature sperm whale—every inch of it steel wire. “I’ve done Einstein, and I’ve done potbellied pigs,” Coburn explains. “Once, a man wanted me to sculpt his two nieces.”
A selection of Coburn’s work forms part of an exhibit at Funk’s Democratic Coffee Spot in Fell’s Point in Baltimore through the end of the month. Last year, a larger abstract work concocted from rebar—the thick, ribbed bands of reinforcement steel that give concrete structures backbone—joined a show outside of Baltimore’s City Hall. “I’m almost at the point now where if I really devoted some time to it, I could make money—but I’ve got that job,” he laments, half-seriously.
Lately, Coburn’s approach echoes the John Coltrane and Music for Zen Meditation albums in his cassette collection: improvisation on form. “I see wire that’s been lying on the job that’s been totally obliterated—but I see a shape in it,” he muses. “I bring that shape out.” The sculptor’s modest pad (the claustrophobic kitchen annex stretches barely 6 feet in any horizontal direction; an old mattress is pulled from the closet at nightfall) is decked with glossy mixed-media collages and inscribed paintings paying tribute to the Beat poets. Five milk crates filled with red, green, and blue CVS spiral notebooks—journals of poetry, reflection, and ink sketch—line the far wall. Harmonicas litter the place.
“It’s funny,” Coburn says, getting up from a makeshift seat of two beat-up couch cushions. “I don’t want to be anything more than I am.”—Dan Gilgoff