Idaho Arts Quarterly » Central Idaho

Of Spirit and Folly

The art and icons of Larry Meyers


Larry Meyers came to the Wood River Valley in the spring of 1969, when the little town of Ketchum practically closed down following the Sun Valley ski season. There were only a couple of hundred people in town during slack season in those years, and Meyers remembers that it was "really one big party." Originally from Santa Barbara, Calif., Meyers came to town as a tile-setter after supporting himself through various creative endeavors in high school.

"I was making art from about the age of 10," he says, taking a break from cutting metal in his shop in Bellevue's industrial neighborhood. "I had a technique for making faux stained-glass windows out of panes of colored plastic and liquid steel epoxy. The lines of epoxy imitated leaded glass. I made friendship rings and earrings, ladybug pins, you name it. I made enough money selling my stuff to support my habits in high school, like getting to the beach and back. Of course, that was when 50 cents would practically fill your car up."

In his early 20s Meyers decided to leave the coast and move to the mountains of the West. Along with his wife at the time, Meyers opened Mellomee Leather Shop in old Hailey, repairing saddles and supplying the horse crowd with chaps and belts. During the winter, he cut and laid tile. For two years, he guided hunters for four months each year on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Clients flew in, and Meyers and the other guides set up camp and tried to get hunters to their elk and deer.

"It was hard work, but it was living a dream to be out there in all that beauty," he says. "Still, I knew I was going to make a living using my creativity. I'd been paying the rent at times making decorative iron work, lighting fixtures and other site-specific things like chandeliers. And then Michael Zapponi invited me into his studio."

Zapponi is an artist who had lived in the Wood River Valley for about 10 years, establishing himself as a sculptor of whimsical, often kinetic, designs. He and Meyers became Two Wild Guys designs and collaborated on painted steel art pieces, including wind vanes, airplanes with pinwheel propellers, Native American silhouettes and just about anything they could sell at arts and crafts shows. The pair would often travel to nearby Twin Falls in order to peruse the junk pile at the recycling facility for worthwhile sculptural shapes: gears, old toys, pieces of metal with interesting patterns to cut and weld together. It is a habit that Meyers continues to this day.

Two Wild Guys were proud of making art with no message other than to amuse and delight in a town with a growing sense of its own importance in the art world. During the1980s, several large galleries sprang up in downtown Ketchum, an art gallery association was formed, and The Sun Valley Center for the Arts had already transformed itself from a casual summer retreat for big city artists to the venerable institution it is today, bringing artists of national and international significance to edify the inhabitants of the Wood River Valley.

"At that time, the Ketchum galleries weren't representing many of the local artists in the valley, and we felt that they should," says Meyers. "So we decided to put a show together which had a message rather than just a show with decorative pretty pictures. The whole idea offended some people, including the galleries who only showed flowers and landscape paintings."

The Unsafe Art Show was organized in the early 1990s by The Artists Group, which included Meyers, Zapponi, and a few other artists looking to form an alternative art community based in the south valley. The exhibit featured a Serbian artist who assembled disfigured dolls, which reflected the atrocities carried out in her homeland. There was a collage made of $100 bills which sold for $100, and Meyers' crucifix sculpture, which would prove to be a seminal work.

"I made a cross from found objects, mostly copper tubing and stainless steel. Under it was a 'no vacancy sign' lit up to read 'vacancy.' At the time I thought, 'we need a new religious icon. This one, the crucifix, has been worn out.'" The search for new icons would become emblematic of Meyers' work for years to come.

"We had a pretty good client base by the time Zapponi and I parted company," says Meyers. "Glenn Janss was one art patron who purchased our work. I learned a lot about cutting steel and fabrication. Eventually, we found that there just wasn't enough work to keep the two of us going together, so we went our separate ways. There were economic reasons, but we also had different visions. We agreed early on that when it stopped being fun, we probably wouldn't do this anymore."

The Artists Group still gets together for dinner and drinks from time to time. Meyers is one of several members who found his way to the Burning Man celebration in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where thousands of artists explore the very limits of the creative impulse each summer. In 2003, the theme of Burning Man was "Beyond Belief," and Meyers designed and built an extraordinary, interactive sculpture that would become a favorite of the Black Rock City community.

"I knew I wanted to make a prayer wheel," Meyers recalls. "I made it big enough that people could walk in it because Burning Man likes interactive art."

The sculpture became a spiritual vehicle of sorts. Within the wheel was a man-size peace sign that held steady while people took turns pushing the wheel around Black Rock City, laying tracks made from words carved into the bottom of the wheel, which read "This Ground We Walk on is Sacred," and "Today I will go Unnoticed." Atop the peace wheel, and unnoticed in reproductions made of an iconic photograph taken of the sculpture, was a black-lighted phallus to satisfy the Tantric enthusiasts in the crowd.

"The public loved it," said Meyers with a warm smile. "It traveled miles and was eventually honored by inclusion within the grand temple-burning at the height of the week-long event."

An activist organization called the Syracuse Cultural Workers immortalized the wheel in a photo shot at sunset and used in the organization's peace calendar. The image has become a favorite postcard in the Wood River Valley.

The year after his success at Burning Man, Meyers became involved in the building of another prayer wheel for a Tibetan monk named Tenzin. In 2004, financier Kiril Sokoloff succeed in bringing His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many thousands of public participants to the stadium of the Wood River High School to talk about peace and the state of the world. In the wake of his visit, there came a spiritual artifact from the Dalai Lama's home-in-exile, Dharmasala, India.

"I was asked by Sokoloff if I could make a mechanism for the turning of a Tibetan prayer wheel which was going to be installed by a Tibetan lama in Ketchum," explains Meyers. "I ended up working closely with Lama Tenzin on his particular needs and desires for the project, eventually overseeing the architects, engineers and carpenters who were needed to install it and build a pagoda around the wheel. The wheel was made of repousse copper, brightly painted and filled with over one million prayer scrolls with the sacred words 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' written on them. I had this in my garage for two weeks."

The prayer wheel eventually became part of a rock garden and waterfall complex now known around the world as the 'Garden of Infinite Compassion.' A dozen or so monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, consecrated the first turning of the wheel in 2005 during a community meditation session.

Near the Garden of Infinite Compassion is the Light on the Mountains Spiritual Center. One year after the Dalai Lama's visit, Meyers installed an obelisk sculpture behind the center for outdoor services. The bronze obelisk reads "Let Peace Begin With Me," in several languages and is circled by the congregation for outdoor services each Sunday, weather permitting.

The playground of Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum is home to a sculpture Meyers was commissioned to build to commemorate the life of a boy who attended the school until his untimely death in an automobile accident several years ago.

"I was asked to do three things with this piece of art," he said. "To celebrate the life of a young man, to create healing, and to involve the community."

To that end, the artist employed a number of fourth-graders from Hemingway Elementary to create a mural that Meyers then cut into bronze sections. The resulting images were then wrapped around a 12-foot column and capped with a multi-colored, open cockpit biplane with a propeller that always faces into the prevailing winds. Inside the cockpit is a steel reproduction of the young man's dog, Rosie.

Meyers has also found time to donate sculptures to several good causes, including the Wood River Valley Circle Foundation, a community organization and after-school program designed to build community through group counseling and emotional work. He also donated a super-sized fish fountain sculpture to the city of Anchorage, Alaska, for its annual "Salmon on Parade" fundraiser for city projects. The fountain was made from a life-size King Salmon taxidermist's armature and raised the most money of any art piece in the show.

Only last year did Meyers finally show his work at one of the big galleries in downtown Ketchum. The unique and whimsical pieces he showed during the "Migration" show at Friesen Gallery resulted from junkyard collecting he began during his collaborations with Zapponi years before.

"About eight years ago, I found some Vespa Scooter fenders that had a cool shape, says Meyers. "I remember thinking, 'That would make a good bird.' Then I found some vintage outboard motor cowlings and it all just clicked."

Meyers took lessons from Dirk Anderson Foundry in Idaho City, learning to make lost-foam aluminum castings for a clever series of pelican sculptures. Part machine and part beast, these birds are called "Never Rude," and "Fisherman," taking titles from their namesake outboard- motor bodies, which rest on cast-aluminum webbed feet. They bring all the wit and whimsy of Meyers' early work together with his ongoing lessons in fabrication.

"I'm lucky to have met many creative artists along the way who were willing to teach me," he says. "It has long been a dream of mine to be able to wake up each day and know exactly what I want to make and be able to make it."

Right now, what he wants to make is pelicans. The Corporate Canvas Gallery in Wilmington, N.C., has commissioned 10 of them for its upcoming Summer Azalea Festival.