Renegade artist Jason McLean exhibits outside the box

David Briggs
Jason McLean repurposes items that others might send—or have sent—to a junkyard. “It’s not shock art,” he says. “It’s meant to make people think.”

Jason McLean doesn’t listen to classical music while he works. He listens to mash up, a musical genre in which Johnny Cash vocals might be laid over the beats of rapper Eazy-E, or Lady Gaga’s lyrics massaged into Journey’s instrumentation. It pulses and booms, gleefully overwhelming. The music is a reflection of what he does: repurposing parts from disparate items to meld them into a new art form.

His “bicycle shredder,” as just one example, is made from a knuckleboom crane, a PG&E telephone grabber, the frame of a Ford F60, the front steering column of a Toyota truck, a winch, a mower and flamethrowers. 

But the mash-up music also mirrors Mr. McLean’s efforts to provide artists with a non-traditional venue for their work, a place outside the stifling atmosphere and pretentious personalities he so often finds in galleries. He hosts bimonthly art shows and a rotating sculpture garden at his rural home outside Tomales and will soon inaugurate a series of “renegade roadside shows” in which artists set up shop for an afternoon to tinker with new projects while displaying finished pieces. “The more crazy, the better,” he said. “Boring art is not for me.” 

Mr. McLean’s own creative impulses stretch back to his childhood in the 1970’s, when he would use his $5 in birthday money at the local dump to purchase junk. Sometimes he fixed broken machines he found, but he also began experimenting with sculpture, turning other people’s trash into robots. 

After high school he took evening classes at a mechanic’s school near Phoenix, Ariz., where he worked by day as a welder. When he returned to West Marin, he started selling handmade gates at the Marin City Flea Market, a product he says evolved into more aesthetic and inventive creations.

Mr. McLean’s artistic background and practical training seem to have worked in tandem to produce the often-unbridled works he now pursues. (It also runs in the family; his brother, Ivan McLean, is a Portland-based artist who focuses on large sculptures.)

The essence of his work lies in its salvaged materials, often items he nabs from junkyards and burn piles. These include wood from soon-to-be-demolished structures, trees he finds fallen in creeks, rusted candle sconces from the 1920’s, cooking apparatuses, a 19th century outhouse, an old treadmill and petrified animal carcasses.

A turquoise-bottomed boat that once ventured through the Panama Canal will soon be turned into a home for one of Mr. McLean’s friends, and a tiny greenhouse built from salvaged wood contains carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps and tube-like nepenthes. 

On a tour last Friday, a yellow jacket, perched inside the lip of one, met its demise when Mr. McLean borrowed this reporter’s pen and nudged the insect inside. It was an act one person might term cruel, and another might call life. 

“Everything works in a circle,” he said. When materials are left in the junkyard—finished with a former life and deprived of a new one—Mr. McLean might say their circle is incomplete.

The next incarnation for a plank of wood may well be one of Mr. McLean’s diminutive but practical detached rooms: one can sleep guests, another serves as a hangout for his daughter, and he has plans to build a portable bar in another. 

An old wheelchair might become the mobile component on a wild, collage-like animal sculpture; one features the skull of a three-point buck and can shoot flames out of its posterior. A sculpture placed inside a chicken coop uses bones of both a coyote and a sheep, another pair of foes.  

But Mr. McLean does not ham-fist the materials into some predetermined fate. “It’s what the material yields,” he said.

One time, Mr. McLean placed a particularly vicious-looking taxidermied bobcat on the side of the road, poised over a dead coyote.

“It’s not shock art,” he said. His goal is to “make people think.”

Mr. McLean has scheduled the first of a series of regular bimonthly shows at his home on Oct. 12. Although the garden is messy because of a recent rummaging trip to Petaluma, he says prospective buyers offended by a stray beer can might want to procure their aesthetic jollies elsewhere. “We work here,” he said. 

Jennifer Pulchinski, a Montana-based artist who has spent the past few winters in Valley Ford, showed her barbed wire sculptures at a show in March. She said the event celebrated the art itself, unlike gallery shows, which can feel merely transactional. 

Mr. McLean also provided space and equipment for her to work, Ms. Pulchinski said. And although galleries can take up to as much as 60 percent in commission. Mr. McLean takes none, though he may request some yard work in exchange. The venue also provides a more authentic backdrop for sculptures, she said.

Pete Phibbs, a Mill Valley native who landed in West Marin after living abroad for many years, will display his work at the upcoming show. One of the pieces slated for exhibit is a seven-foot “Easter Island-ish” sculpture made from cypress. “It’s a very sexy wood,” he said, adding that the particular piece has a line of “heart rot” through the middle, part of the appeal: “If you light it the right way, it could be up-lit, down-lit, all kinds of different stuff.”

The Justina Vista Sculpture Garden—named after the matriarch of the family that bought the land that Mr. McLean is leasing—also provides a more intimate experience for art-seekers. “A lot of people, when they buy art, like to have a story to tell,” Mr. Phibbs said. 

And although he bristles at the term networking, Mr. McLean hopes the bimonthly events, the sculpture garden and roadside shows will provide opportunities not just for art-lovers to sate their curiosity but to spread word of the artists. “I’d like to hype them up,” he said. 


Jason McLean’s upcoming art show at his sculpture garden in Fallon will take place on Oct. 12, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Mr. McLean requests that people RSVP to (707) 766.9510.