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A Portrait of the Artist

Dick Martin’s colleagues recall a Torpedo Factory Pioneer.

The withered man with a hacking cough has locked his studio door. Then he pauses, and gestures to the nameplate beside it. In common with most of the studios at the Torpedo Factory, which are often shared by several artists, there are multiple names listed: Dick Martin, Dirk Mactin, Dark Mictin. But after more than 30 years at the city’s studio space/gallery on the waterfront, Dick Martin shares a studio with no one.

“See that?” said Martin/Mactin/Mictin, in a video interview made shortly before his death from lung cancer. “Wacko.”

But if resorting to a list in order to describe Martin makes him crazy, his friends are certifiable. Mirella Belshe and Pat Monk, both sculptors, worked in studios next door to Martin’s for three decades. Marcos Teixera, a jeweler upstairs, knew him for 13 years. Last week, the friends gathered in the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery during a commemoration of Martin, one of the first artists at the Torpedo Factory, who died of lung cancer on June 12. “Dick, Dirk, Dark: In Memory of Richard Martin” ran from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3. Surrounded by bronze and aluminum on pedestals, a geodesic sphere hanging from the ceiling and made of stars, detailed oil-paintings of trees with global rootballs, tiny pieces of silver jewelry: a tiny crucifix, industrial statues made of interlocking shelving rods, a bug made from spent film canisters tossed on the floor by photographers at the Watergate hearing, three artists spent more than an hour recalling their friend. Each story catalyzed another association, sometimes contradictory, often voiced in a simple, declarative: “He was hard of hearing.”

By his friends’ account, Dirk Martin was a very meticulous person; a Korean War veteran; a soundman for CBS news; deaf in one ear, extremely intense, the epitome of eccentricity; not modest, tall and strong, very handsome, blue-eyed; a sharp dresser, a hat-wearer, a cat-lover, a feeder of the Potomac’s catfish and ducks; intelligent, persistent, a little boy playing with toys; stubborn, surprising, a Scrooge (who filled his studio with food at the Christmas party); the maker of the best and the only Caesar salad you could eat (which he served out of a mahogany bowl he’d carved himself); a happy man with a lot of bitterness in his past; a full-of-life person, a man who knew everybody, who held very strong views about many things, who loved his wife; who knew all the jokes in the world, most of them dirty.

IN THE VIDEO shot before his death, Martin is sick. He is about to start his first round of chemotherapy. He shuffles slowly between the heavy tools in his studio, many of which he built himself for purposes as specific as bending wire to the perfect angle to make two sides of a five-pointed star. Standing beside his tools, he appears to be as delicate as his airy creations. “It’s so important that all of these points, when you weld them, they’re perfect,” he says as he places five bents wires together, holding each in place with metal disks resting in their angles. The star will become one of the 12 five-pointed stars that mingles with 32 six-pointed stars in a geodesic sphere inspired by a recently discovered carbon atom named after Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome.

“I’ve done stuff over the years that should have been noticed by art critics and whatnot,” Martin says later. Talking about his art makes him emotional. Several times on camera, his face cracks open. He does not shy from the camera at these moments, shows no self-consciousness. “I just want to do art,” he says.

“He could make a wide variety of things from jewelry to sculpture,” said Pat Monk. “Each one made meticulously. He considered each one museum quality.” Monk often sneezed loudly as he worked up clouds of dust in his studio. When he sneezed, Martin would reply with a whistle, just as loud. “Every time now when I sneeze, no one answers,” Monk said.

Martin cast jewelry using the ‘lost wax process,’ which involves connecting a series of wax models into a “tree” of barely attached forms. The wax is placed in a “flask.” A material is poured around it and hardens. Then the jeweler heats the flask, melting the wax. When the temperature is right, he places it in a vacuum chamber that sucks out the wax and pulls melted gold or platinum into the negative spaces. The process is delicate. Only the tiniest threads of wax connect one piece to another. Belshe compares it to lace. The complexity of the tree, and the challenge of casting, multiplies with every extra object. Belshe described how Monk could cast 20 rings simultaneously in a flask he’d invented that was better than any used in the jewelry industry. “For tiny, tiny little objects, this is the miracle,” said Texeira.

But Martin was not averse to using what was readily available. He began to build sculptures out of x-shaped, interlocking rods used to make display shelves. He simply slotted them together. When the rods went out of production, he scanned the Internet, driving as far as Florida for a dozen. When those ran out, he built them out of wax and cast them himself.

TEXEIRA SAID that in the last years of his life, Martin addressed a more daunting challenge, reconciling with his estranged daughter. “If he had any regrets, I think not having his daughter to share his life with him, to be with him daily, was one.”

At his friends’ urging, Martin finally contacted her. They began talking on the phone and emailing. She visited him from her home in Florida before he died.

“He lived with fullness,” said Texeira. He remembered when Martin, frail from his second and final chemotherapy treatments, came with agitation into Texeira’s studio to tell him he’d been locked out of his studio safe. But the jeweler was busy with customers; 20 minutes later, when Texeira finally came to Martin’s studio, “he had a drill in the center of the safe. He had already drilled part of that hole. He was not waiting for me.” Together, the two men tried to take the door off the safe. “We pounded that safe man.” It took them two hours. Martin said they would never be bank-robbers.

Texeira said this is “the last fresh, good memory” of Martin. “He was seeing the world with his normal sense of humor, his normal attitude. He had the attitude that he would conquer the world, that everything would be all right.”

In Martin’s painting, “The Shadow Falls Before the Man,” a stick figure tumbles off a cliff in multiple-exposure stop-motion. “I got this far down and I didn’t know whether I should splat him on the bottom or save him,” said Martin in the video, “and I saved him.”