The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Agelio Batle with an Array of Graphite Objects

Agelio Batle with an array of graphite objects in his studio. Photo: Mark Tuschman

Mark Tuschman

Long before Agelio Batle perfected the art of turning plastic milk jugs into glowing pendant lamps, he had a penchant for unloved materials.

Perched in his studio in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco are abstract steel heads, like something out of Beowulf or Game of Thrones, wrought from discarded fencing and steel rod he found in the Philippines while visiting his parents. “I can never sit still – I have to be doing something,” explains the artist, who chopped and welded the metal forms.

Another project that resulted from that trip – trompe l’oeil soda cans carved from marble quarried on Romblon Island and bound by a plastic six-pack yoke – prompts reflection on the nature of permanence, disposability, and the trash that haunts us forever. Even the trees across the street have been repurposed: Batle gathers the trimmings, soaks, bends, and binds them with leather to create jewelry.
 
Entering his studio, which includes a showroom, office, and workshop with the family domicile upstairs, is like walking into a cabinet of curiosities: Surfaces are covered with sculptures, ceramics, projects, and paintings. Arrayed on a table are the die-pressed graphite objects – shells, animals, leaves, and other shapes – that kick-started Batle’s career a few years after he earned his MFA in sculpture, with honors, from California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in 1993. “The first piece was a right hand, because I was obsessed with the miracle of drawing and the relationship between hand and pencil.” It took hundreds of attempts to find the right combination of materials and technique so it would draw on paper without smudging the skin.
 
Today Batle ships graphite objects to nearly a thousand stores, from the shop at a cutting-edge arts center in Moscow to the Noguchi Museum gift shop, and takes custom commissions from people such as fashion designer Marc Jacobs (who, quaintly, specified an extended middle finger). Such is his intimate relationship with the material that he even perfected a graphite-based paint to apply to the wooden panels he uses as painting canvases.
 
But when Batle was approached by the nearby Workshop Residence program, which invites designers, artists, and craftspeople to develop “artful and useful items,” there was just one stipulation. “Agelio could pick any material and make any object – as long as it wasn’t graphite!” recalls Ann Hatch, a longtime supporter of the arts who conceived of the Workshop Residence a few years ago. The program supports residents with an apartment, a work space, an ongoing show displaying products as they’re made, a stipend, and a sales outlet.

Batle had already done some experimenting with the opaque plastic milk containers and was curious to take it further. So this past June, joined by wife and business partner Delia, sons Noa, 17, and Nilo, 15, and a few of their classmates in the interdisciplinary arts program at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (for which Batle has helped devise and teach curriculum), he turned the Workshop apartment into a think tank, laboratory, and milk container repository.

In the exploratory phase, Batle and crew dissected jugs in order to identify and extract the most decorative and functional components. “Take the handle, for example. Cut a certain way, it can resemble a calla lily, a trumpet flower, or a phalaenopsis orchid. Another part looks like a fishbone and creates this really elegant repeating pattern.” Leaves and flowers  for the trailing tendrils were cut from the flattest part, what Batle dubbed the “filet.” And reducing the bottoms to their component triangles, which create jewel-like facets when welded back together, sparked a bonus geometry lesson that touched on the nature of platonic solids. After filling boxes with components, the group started piecing them together and exploring how the disparate shapes interacted; some were attached with a hot-air de-soldering gun, others using cold connections. By the end of the residency, they had created some 26 lamps in six different styles.
The showroom was darkened when the lamps were hung for the midsummer opening. “You could hear the kids’ collective gasp as they all lit up at once. It was pretty special,” recalls Batle. An LED strip within the circle of the Fishbone lamp causes it to shine from within, while the Spout Cloud, fashioned from the jug tops, appears to undulate, glowing in space like something out of Jules Verne. Because of the nature of the program, where exhibits overlap and products continue to be sold, the lights illuminate past and subsequent projects, everything from teacups by Belgian fashion designer Dirk Van Saene to a sea-worthy sailboat built by Aaron Turner, an architecture and urban design professor, and chairs made from mushrooms by Philip Ross.
 
While the impetus of many Workshop projects may be conceptual, there are concrete goals. “We are sustainable and local, but not nonprofit,” says Hatch. “Selling the fruits of the labor is an essential component.” In addition to the lamps, Batle’s residency resulted in a DIY kit that includes a light fixture, support ring, fluorescent bulb, hanging hardware, and instructions, all contained within a starter milk jug embellished with one pre-cut leaf. And the San Francisco Exploratorium has acquired several lamps for its permanent collection.
 
After the residency, Batle refocused on his painting; he is part of a show in December and January at the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. But he has not lost his fascination with material transformations; Batle is also crafting wallets out of Douglas fir salvaged from old local buildings. And he has a pending grant application in collaboration with SFArtsEd, an organization that supports art-starved public schools.

“The idea is for kids to turn in their toy guns, which we will crush, chip, melt down, and extrude into molds to make eggs that will be decorated and embellished with text, such as ‘Once upon a time, this egg was a toy gun.’ It’s like a rebirth, a second chance.” As with the milk jugs, the process is as important as the final product.

“Creating the lamps was a perfect way for the students to see that you can take one of the ugliest things on Earth – an old milk jug – and with some care, transform it into something beautiful. Which is, I think, a very cool life lesson.”
Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco, and a frequent contributor to American Craft.