A warm message in cold steel

In his Danbury studio, the raw material that shapes artist Jim Felice’s works surrounds him. There’s the burnt-out husk of a plywood structure with its rich black and charred surface; an imposing reel that once held electric wiring he’s eyeing for a circus series; and piles of industrial scrap metal and car parts.

Felice, a longtime Ridgefield resident in his mid-60s, will work with almost any found objects for his sculptures, but as someone who started out as a musician, he interacts with his material in a way a jazz musician might play along with others — constantly seeking fresh melodies by using the same building blocks of notes, chords and beats.

Standing in a forest of tall, plywood structures, there’s a freshly minted six-foot Christmas tree Felice made for S Magazine for this holiday issue. It is a pop of bold color beneath bright fluorescent lights — a lone tree in a stand of disparate parts and machines. It’s only the second tree he’s made in his more than 30-year art career, and the first one was completed only a few days before for the Festival of Trees, a benefit for Danbury-based Ann’s Place, a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients.

His tree is a reflection not only of his art, but is also a manifestation of the themes that guide his holiday season, he says. “I didn’t want to make a traditional tree, but I also wanted to portray, at least in my mind, the true meaning of the holidays.”

Part of that meaning is revealed in the tree topper. “Instead of an angel or star to cap off the tree, I made a trio of people dancing and holding hands,” he says of the fire-engine red, eye-bolt stick figures. They complement the tree base, a half-sphere made of foam covered in the same bright red, with a stick-figure relief created with auto body putty — familiar material for a former automotive restorer. “The holidays are really about people, about the joy of coming together.”

Picking a copper-wire candy cane off a steel-bolt branch, he hands me the decoration. “You can have that. This has a lot of ornaments on it, but I still feel there’s all this space around it,” he says of the sculpture with the sparsity of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Large washers that once held together spools of wire get a second life as bright orange, red and blue decorations. There are sunny yellow stars imprinted with a starburst from a candy dish that Felice used as a mold. “As a design element, isn’t that great? Everything breathes; decorations don’t get lost in the pine branches. Objects occupy space, right? So you need to give them space so they can breathe.”

A constant improviser, he takes another look at the tree. Since he was a child growing up in Thornwood, N.Y., and later, enjoying Christmas with his family in Ridgefield, his holiday evergreens have been a bit more traditional. On this afternoon, however, he is pondering other possibilities. “You know, I might like to bring this home and make it our tree this year,” he says, smiling. “But I don’t know if that is going to fly.”

Felice’s holiday spirit goes beyond his two-story studio near the back of an industrial park. It’s only a short walk to the Trailer Box Gallery Project, a gallery space open all year for his art and others’. Through Dec. 30, artist-made ornaments will be sold there to raise money for Ann’s Place. Walk past the candy cane garden to find Felice’s “elf workshop,” where he has sculpted an elf-like creature who presumably is making the confections. Either way, it’s filled with holiday cheer.

“It was fun,” he says about making the tree. “It pushed me to do something I haven’t done before.”

chennessy@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy

Christina Hennessy