Terry Lee Dill's sculptures are a duality. They at once employ a raw, gritty, utilitarian construction as well as a zen-like minimalism, juxtaposing spindly I-beams with massive spheres. And Dill is a duality too. As he guides us through a retrospective of 30 years of his work, he exhibits both braggadocio and modesty. "There's two things I'm really good at," he says wryly (full disclosure: Dill was a teacher of mine years ago). "One's being really creative, and the other one is understanding three-dimensional space. I'm not a great artist by any stretch of the imagination."
What Dill does excel at is problem solving and treading the line between functionality and pure aesthetics. "I want them to feel like art, but I don't want them to be art, if that makes any sense," he says. "You don't get a sense of reality, why they exist. You want to know why they exist, but you'll never know why they exist — there's no reason for them to exist."
Dill got his start in Iowa, where he originally studied architectural engineering. "It was my architecture teacher who suggested I go back into art," Dill explains. "He said I would be really bored being an engineer." Between semesters in the summer, Dill worked in construction as a boilermaker (think any sort of closed vessel: water towers, refineries, and the like), where he honed his skills in engineering and building large-scale structures. It's there where he had a eureka moment when he was part of a crew tasked with making a 50-foot sphere for a construction job.
Dill says his interest in spheres goes back to his days studying physics, where he noticed that many principles were illustrated with spheres. But when he got into sculpture, Dill saw the sphere as a chance to do something visually striking. "I wanted to set some ground between me and anybody else," he says. "I was trying to work with something nobody else was working with — nobody was working with spheres because they were too costly or too difficult to make."
After graduating, Dill moved to New York City, and made a living there for 16 years. "I just got out of graduate school, and I felt like I had nothing to teach anybody," he says. "I just got out of school myself." He got into the art-moving business through a neighbor, and met established artists like Jasper Johns, all while subletting a 2,500-square-foot studio from one of his teachers from back in Iowa. With a winding staircase and a one-man elevator, it wasn't possible for him to continue creating large sculptures, however. So Dill did what he does best — he got creative and started making his sculptures modular.
He pursued outdoor installations across the country — his retrospective is filled drawings and mock-ups from proposal after proposal, with many of them never getting off the ground. Many of the finished projects were only short-term — Dill would just reclaim the materials afterward.
He shows us one project that did come to fruition, a canopied sphere intended to serve as a sort of rest area in Florida. His original concept had benches, but they were scrapped when city officials expressed concern that they would attract the homeless. So Dill came up with a compromise — a set of tubes that could serve as "30 minute seats."
But that solution drew a different set of problems. "The only thing I didn't anticipate is that skateboarders went to town on them," he says. "I didn't realize that I was actually ahead of my time in that I made skateboard ramps!"
Dill wound up moving to Detroit more than 15 years ago to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art and teach at the College for Creative Studies. "I read that a bunch of artists from New York are moving to Detroit," he says, commenting on the news that Brooklyn-based Galapagos Art Space is heading to the Motor City. Once again, ahead of his time, it seems.
Dill will host a tour of Mind in Transition: A Retrospective at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25 at the Janice Charach Gallery; 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield Twp. RSVP to attend by calling 248-432-5579; learn more at charachgallery.org. Runs until Feb. 19.