Martin Metal was an artistic and cultural presence in Berkeley from the early 1950s until his death in 2007. He was primarily a sculptor but worked in many media.
Metal was born in Chicago on July 29, 1918. He was for all intents and purposes raised by a single mother. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in humanities from the University of Chicago in 1940. Throughout his life, he read and studied philosophy, history, and advanced mathematics. He was a lifelong learner.
Metal also was an instructor and curator with the Chicago Art Institute. At the Institute of Design, Metal was a colleague of László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian who in 1923 had become the instructor of the foundation course at the Bauhaus.
Metal served in the Navy from 1943-1945, teaching aircraft recognition. After the war he taught cultural studies at the Institute of Design from 1947-1948, picking up where he left off when drafted. After a few years at Stanford, Metal made it to Berkeley by the early 1950s.
In one of my longest Quirky Berkeley posts, I look at his work, career, and life. Here, I highlight Metal’s work that may still be seen in Berkeley.
This mosaic/cement piece is just outside the door of what until very recently was the Caffee Mediterraneum on Telegraph. I start with this modest piece because Metal was often seen at the Med in the 1960s. The lead photograph on this post was taken at the Med by Elio de Pisa, the coffee counter man at the Med for years.
Down in abandoned foundry-land of southwest Berkeley, a Metal piece sits rusting.
His daughter Madeline Metal explains: “These were commissioned by the same developers, together with the San Ramon Iron Horse. They were the last large works of my father’s. The development projects fell through, and my father opted to keep the works. Gary Glasser co-created them with him.” Just a few blocks east on Carleton is Juan’s Place.
The grill work on the windows is Metal’s, although he did not paint the figures and did not envision them painted.
A large Martin Metal concrete and ceramic sculpture/mural stands over the King Street entrance to the Malcolm X School.
This family photo was taken shortly after installation of the piece:
There is a Martin Metal climbing structure at the New School of Berkeley. You can see the structure from the gate at the north end of the school.
This family photo was taken shortly after installation:
When Ken Sarachan opened Rasputin’s Records on the southwest corner of Telegraph and Durant, he commissioned work by Mark Bulwinkle and Martin Metal, two giants.
The space is now Bear Basics.
Metal made architectural models that were part of an exhibit for the city of Berkeley and were displayed on the grass in front of the old city hall in the late 1970s. Visible from the street:
He also has a piece in a house at 690 Panoramic Way in Berkeley. When the house, built in 1969, was for rent, the listing identified “a signature fireplace made from cast concrete and copper by the metal sculptor Martin Metal.”
Several stunning Metal works that once were publicly viewable in Berkeley are gone, but remembered, starting with a gate for Berkeley Rep.
In 1971, Metal designed a fabricated a large star that was installed in the window of the Great Western Bank on Shattuck
This piece was named “Elevation of Man’s Spirit Through Books” (circa 1978). It was hung at Cody’s Book Store.
Narsai David commissioned this 19-foot-long woman made with bent 3/4″ steel rods from a water tower for his restaurant in Kensington. Kathleen was the model for the woman.
It is reported that the woman is now in David’s backyard.
Metal died on February 28, 2007. A daughter and her family live in his house/workshop at 10th and Grayson. His life and work inform them strongly.
Having immersed myself in Martin Metal’s life for a few months, I have a sense of him, but only a sense. Mark Bulwinkle remembers him as someone with a broad and deep knowledge of classical music, opera, and philosophy, as well as an artist. Talk to anyone who knew Metal and you will hear about a kind and generous and learned artist. He did not attach himself to academia, did not seek wealthy patrons, and yet he found a way to be an artist as he understood it. He survived and raised two families.
I also look at Metal and remember a time that I didn’t know, a different time in Berkeley when artists sat and idled away hours at the Caffee Med. When freedom was not just another word for nothing left to lose. When we were filled with hope.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.
A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.