Just west of Pamplona, Spain, about halfway up Alto del Perdon, are the beautifully rusting sheet-metal sculptures of 13 pilgrims fighting the winds and storms of this historic spot along the 500-mile trek across the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain’s cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
It is along this journey that some grieve, some heal and some find spiritual and physical renewal. And it is the sheet-metal sculptures discovered in the first days of this nearly 1.1 million-step journey that mark the beginning of a pilgrimage some take despite sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds.
And not unlike those sheet-metal touchstones along the historic el Camino de Santiago, the magnificent sheet-metal and rebar sculptures of Steven Mestyan Sr. are much more than beautiful works of art. They are part of his pilgrimage from the depths of profound grief, they are his expression of his love for his son, they are a path that has taken him beyond the bounds of earth and life and what seems impossible.
These are the touchstones keeping him connected to his son, Steven Mestyan Jr., who lost his life to a seizure on Friday, June 20, 2014. He was 24.
“Unfortunately, his passing forced me to do something with my mind and hands, to get myself out of the hole,” Mestyan said in an interview the day after Christmas. “It’s an everyday process when losing a child. He was a great kid. I worked in corrections and know what it’s like; this boy was something else.”
The love never ends, said Mestyan.
“You love them even more,” he said. “And what I’m doing is showing him I love him and showing the world I miss him.”
A son’s path
In the 2010 Emilio Estevez film “The Way,” Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American physician who travels to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, after his 20-something son was killed during a storm while walking the el Camino de Santiago. Once there, Tom decides to finish the 40-day journey for his son and leave handfuls of his son’s ashes along the way.
In real life, Mestyan, in a similar fashion, is honoring his son’s art and carrying on works his son is unable to complete.
“I’m doing this is in my son’s memory; he is my inspiration,” he said. “I feel I’d be doing him a disrespect if I didn’t do something with my gift; he can’t do things with his talent.”
To see Mestyan’s sculptures is to believe they are created by a long-seasoned sculptor with years of experience mastering the intricate details, movements and emotional expressions of a much larger than life spread-winged eagle, a running 11-foot-tall Bigfoot, an 800-pound moose.
Nonetheless, the way Mestyan explains it, he’s only been doing this a few years.
“Steven taught me how to weld. He said, ‘Oh, let me show you how, Dad,’ ” Mestyan said, adding that he originally bought a welder a few years ago to repair his Harley trailer. “I’m self-taught.”
But, looking into the emotionally captivating eyes of his recently installed Bigfoot structure, one wonders, “How?”
Mestyan said his love for his son is in these pieces, which have recently garnered national attention.
“There are times when I am out there (in his studio) and I’ll ask him, ‘Steven, what do you think we should do about this?’ ” he said. “I’m self-taught, but I am being taught. I feel his presence in the garage with me so strongly.”
A few years ago, the father and son began working together in a studio they created at Mestyan’s Hampton home, naming it Skelabar Studio. The name is a combination of rebar and skeleton, because rebar is the skeleton for the sculptures.
“From sketching to photography to carving marble, Steven was always trying something new,” he said. “We worked closely together. We had a lot of good times. It was not long enough. He said to me, ‘Dad you’ve got talent.’ And he’d get me out there.”
Steven Jr., a 2012 Castleton University graduate, showed his work in several group exhibitions and at the time of his death, his most recent sculpture and photography was in an exhibition at the “30 Under 30” show at Chaffee Art Center in Rutland, Vermont.
A metal core, metal hair
Mestyan’s first sculpture was a rebar dragon.
It wasn’t until later, in the development of his craft, that he began covering the rebar skeletons in sheet metal.
But seeing a piece of sheet metal and seeing the way he shapes and forms it into nearly living creatures is transformative.
One of his more recent creations, a 1,000-pound Bigfoot in a near full-run on the edge of Route 4, just outside the village of Whitehall on the Vermont side, has been getting lots of attention since its December unveiling.
What makes this Bigfoot so lifelike are the strips of finely and tediously cut metal for his hair.
“With electric shears, I cut longer, thinner, shorter pieces,” Mestyan said. “Then it was the placement of the strips. I reached my hand into a big bucket of strips and I would decide where to place it.”
And now that Bigfoot has settled into his new home at the edge of the village, his metal strips will weather into a rusted patina, much like the sculptures along the el Camino.
Mestyan developed his own formula, a combination of ingredients, including salt, that he sprays on the metal when completed to enhance the aging process.
Paul Thompson, the owner of Vermont Marble, Granite, Slate & Soapstone Co., who commissioned the sculpture to sit outside his business, said, “People have been pulling over and stopping to get a better look. I was going to get an 8-by-4 piece of plywood and make a silhouette of Bigfoot.”
But before Thompson had time to create his own Bigfoot, Mestyan approached him.
“He said, ‘I’ll make it the way you want it,’ ” Thompson said, adding that Mestyan said Thompson did not have to buy it if he did not like the finished creation. “When I first saw it when he was building it in his garage, I put down a deposit on it.”
According to Mestyan, it is not about the money, though. He is compelled to keep making the sculptures.
“For me, it’s priceless. How can I put a price on this?” he said.
A sculpture of a motorcycle with a coffin and skeleton, “The Grim Reaper,” was created in the depths of grief, he said.
Mestyan also created the Bigfoot sculpture at the Skene Valley Country Club in Whitehall.
The nearly finished Moose, which took about four to five 4-by-8-foot sheets of metal, will soon find a home at the Pine Grove Diner in Granville.
After Moose, he’s not sure what’s next. Maybe a knight riding a horse. Maybe a guardian angel, kneeling on one knee.
For now, he said he hopes people seeing the sculptures enjoy them.
He talks about Steven’s sharp wit and the way he could make people feel happy.
“I’m not very good at that; Steven touched so many people’s hearts,” Mestyan said. “So, if I could use my art to touch somebody the way Steven did personally, that would make me happy.”