In his convictions and his art, John T. Unger is a man of steel
By Jeffray N. Kessler
As he discusses art on the porch of his home outside of Mancelona, a
roofline shadow cast by the high afternoon sun splits sculptor John
Unger in half. The image is emblematic of a man whose talents are
bringing him success on two fronts. He is an internationally renowned
metal sculptor as well as a custom website consultant.
Unger greets each day scanning the horizon for the next big thing.
When I wake up, he says, I first think of the things that must be
done, those that should be done and those I feel like doing.
This daybreak philosophy has worked well for the 42-year-old who grew
up on Torch Lake and started out as a poet and graphic designer.
Youll find metal sculptures in various stages of completion and a
line of large, rust-ensconced bowls at Ungers studio, workshop and
home on M66, just south of Eddy School Road outside of Mancelona.
These are the Great Bowls of Fire, made from the ends of propane
tanks -- the large pigs that are common at homesites throughout
One day I was shopping in a scrap yard and saw one of these tank
ends cut off and I asked myself, What else could this be? How could
I *misinterpret* this in a useful manner? Thats when I got the
idea, Unger recalls.
CHALICE OF FIRE
The result are large bowls, the edges of which are plasma-cut into
flames, waves and other designs. There is a hole cut in the bottom
for water drainage, and they are perfect chalices for fire or
fountains for gardens, decks and commercial settings.
Thanks to e-commerce and the Internet, Ungers work can be found in
private homes, restaurants and hotels around the world, with orders
from Ireland, England, the Caribbean and Hawaii, among other places.
Originally sold in galleries, 95% of his sales are now over the
Internet and out of state. Demand for the bowls is now in its fifth
Unger says its ironic, using a fuel storage device for a product that
encapsulates fire. There is a beautiful poetry about it. This is the
kind of pattern to look for in creativity. Pattern recognition is
key. I am not looking for what things are supposed to do. Instead, I
try to figure out how to deal with constraints and make them work for
Blogging about his work led to increased sales. I started because I
just wanted better software and to sell my work globally. Blogging
has made me a success,
That initiation led to his becoming a website designer for a time. He
has authored coding tutorials that allow people to customize and
improve their websites with nonstandard characteristics. Like my art,
this was another case of reinterpreting something I saw. I got paid
rather well for being me and having fun.
Unger has paid his dues, however. His success began with collapse.
In 1999, he suffered through the catastrophic cave-in of the dot.com
industry and lost his job. The year after, while removing the snow
from his roof (a foreclosed minimart), it collapsed.
I literally rode it down, he recalls. I found myself in an
unheated building, in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere. I
started doubting myself and I thought about quitting my art.
Ironically, it was art that lead to his revival. The bank that held
the financing on his collapsed home took an interest in his art and
struck a deal. Soon, he began buying the equipment he needed to do
his metal work. He currently is enjoying a more secure base. The
lesson, he said, is to be willing to work hard, fail and not give
On the horizon for Unger is the expansion of his fire bowl line to
include diminutive bowls mounted on chalice-like bases made from
smaller propane tanks. Hes also creating torches cut out of fire
extinguishers; a new bowl made from welding two tank ends together;
and artwork that utilizes metal cutouts from his bowls.
Unger has also explored developing a venture capital fund for artists,
and envisions creating a website that would provide support for public
As an artist, I have always felt that an artist has to communicate
something meaningful, Unger says. In his case, communication takes
place on his twice-weekly blog-cast Internet radio show. I have been
re-energized by this project. It is a new path of creativity, and Id
like people to learn how to do good things for themselves as artists.
For years Ive been giving advice to other artists, now I am making a
formal commitment, he says.
The radio shows are aired at 9 p.m. eastern time at
http://www.artheroesradio.com. His Tuesday night show always includes
an interview, while the Thursday night show is a call-in format.
Its an opportunity to talk to the most interesting people in the
world: artists, authors, cartoonists, broadcasters, entrepreneurs...
Recently, Unger attended the Texas music and media conference, South
by Southwest, where he was a panelist speaking on the topic of
Millionaire or Artist; How About Both? His presentation addressed
art and business.
There is a lot of snake oil out there being fed to artists. My
message will never be that. It will convey the hard work and
sometimes difficult paths to success. There are some people who
should not even take this path.
On the heels of a severe recession, Unger sees new opportunities, just
as he sees art where others see scrap iron.
The landscape is shifting, he says. The new economy will no longer
depend on the big corporations and all that job dependency. Instead
it will require *independency.* Individuals with the proper skills
and courage will need to find something that people want, and know how
to bring it to them.
With his ability to see and communicate, John Unger is poised and
willing to support that movement.
Check out John Ungers website at www.johntunger.com.