David Van Hee's metal masks hang on a wall in his manic, paint-splattered studio like the trophies of a robot head-hunter.
Some are long and thin, with crazy strips of metal spewing from the top, much like boxing promoter Don King's stand-straight-up hair. Others are triangluar, with almost placid-looking eyes staring from black, gray and rainbow-colored sheets.
The masks could be the work of a member of an African or Polynesian tribe suddenly given tons of surplus sheet metal. But, in fact, they're the work of Van Hee, a Lawrence artist with a growing following in crafts and jewelry circles.
"It was kind of a silly thought," Van Hee said in a recent interview about the masks. "I came to it kind of by accident. I had been making ceramic pins to sell in gift shops, and they were in the shapes of faces. So I started to make them in metal. I cut out pieces of metal, and by trial and error they started looking like faces."
VAN HEE'S masks, along with his other jewelry and pins, are sold at galleries and stores across the country, including the Phoenix and Artists En Masse galleries in Lawrence and Accents in Kansas City, Mo. The artist has been making the masks, which sell for between $50 and $250, for about two years.
"The main thing about the masks is they sell," said Lynda Eliot, owner of Accents in Kansas City's Westport neighborhood. "I'd say he's one of the most creative people I've met in my life."
Although the masks seem to echo the art of Africa or Polynesia, Van Hee said he doesn't have a deep background in anthropology or ethnic art.
"I love that kind of art," he said. "I grew up in Kansas City in the neighborhood of the Nelson (Atkins Museum of Art), so I saw a lot of that kind of art. I've also made totem poles and statues that look like that. But I haven't studied anthropology."
THE ARTIST works in a studio just outside Lawrence on 15th Street. He settled there about 10 years ago, and since then he's covered the walls with his tools and bright, clashing colors.
"I used to sleep up there (in a crawlspace above the workshop), and I lived here year round," he said. "I started with almost nothing, very low overhead.''
Van Hee began painting and working with metals as a teen-ager. He said he discovered his talent for art pretty much on his own.
"I went to Rockhurst High School, which then had no art classes," he said. "So I started to do it on my own. It wasn't a socially condoned activity."
After graduating high school in 1968, Van Hee began to pursue both his art and his education, studying at the Kansas City Art Institute, Webster College in St. Louis and Kansas University, where he learned metal etching under John Talleur. But he ended up studying behavioral psychology.
"I THOUGHT I wanted to work with children until I actually did that," he said. "All the time I was lugging around all this painting and equipment. I just started working in jewelry. I started doing earrings and other pieces, basically by dripping acryllic on metal to see what happened."
Van Hee seems to have a very practical outlook on his art. He doesn't have an over-arching theory of art for his masks; he just makes them to sell.
He'll experiment with shapes and colors, tossing out the ones that turn out ugly. He works on about 50 masks at a time, usually completing a set for sale in two weeks, as he works 12-hour days. He uses a variety of paints on the metals, including acrylics and spray paint. The time he spends on his art, and on home-improvement projects at the house he now lives in, take away time from actual marketing.
"I SELL a lot in New York, a lot in Kansas City, in Portland and in Michigan, all over," he said. "But I haven't even explored a lot of places that could sell it."
For Van Hee, marketing usually means showing his new wares to area dealers and sending photos to sellers farther away.
"It's a wide variation of relationships," he said. "Here and in Kansas City I have very individual relationships. With people out of town, it's hard to keep up with with them. You're pretty much dealing with New York with pictures and letters. It tends to get more formalized."
Eliot said she started selling Van Hee's pins, then took on the masks after he showed them to her.
"It's an amazingly broad spectrum of customers who buy the masks," she said. "They appeal to just about everybody."
BEYOND MASKS and jewelry, Van Hee also creates collages. He has a couple of them sitting in the studio: They have the same mad, hodgepodge feel as his studio. He and a friend in Kansas City started a mini-movement emphasising collages. But the collages don't seem to sell.
"I've shown it around town and around Kansas. I've sold no collages and only a few paintings, and when I do sell something like that it's an event."
Even as the masks stay popular, Van Hee is already starting to experiment with a new design: decorated hubcaps.
"I'm hoping the hubcaps will be commercial as well."