The Rust Hunter: Sculptor William Massey finds art in discarded, overlooked items

Photos by Isadora Pennington

On a warm spring day I loaded up my car and set off towards South Atlanta. I followed quiet residential streets that eventually gave way to construction sites, run down buildings, and vacant lots. At the end of a winding road, a massive mountain of junk loomed overhead indicating that I had arrived. I crossed the train tracks and found myself in the parking lot of South River Art Studios. 

Here, in a rather nondescript garage space, is the studio of artist William Massey. Known for his massive sculptural figures composed of found objects and metal, Massey has been hard at work in this studio since October of 2019. Inside are a variety of tools, conceptual sketches, miniature models used for reference, and of course, piles of metal everywhere you look. 

“I’m most intrigued by the human form and I feel like it is most relatable… especially when it’s a human form made out of inherently human items like a lamp, a tire, a shovel, yard equipment,” said Massey. His works have graced the Atlanta BeltLine for years now, faces overlooking the day-to-day of countless Atlantans who often pause to photograph, inspect, and appreciate these oversized assemblage sculptural portraits. 

“It’s a level of familiarity that I’m still working out in my brain, it’s this mystery of intriguing people by making something so familiar like the human form out of things that are so familiar from the home, from your lived experience. It’s like the things you do mixed with – when you look in the mirror what do you see?”

Massey seeks out items that have had a life of their own, that have a story, and are in his words, “authentic.” He sources much of his materials by scouring vacant lots and gutters, dumpster diving, and searching at times on hands and knees through the grounds of old farms. He looks for items that would otherwise be overlooked, those that have been forgotten and discarded bring him the most joy. When composing smaller scale works that are meant to be displayed inside, such as with the wall-mounted Grace portrait, he incorporates a variety of objects and different materials such as picture frames, pencils, brushes, eyeglasses and the like. Larger pieces intended to be displayed outside are generally made of metal as the material is more durable in the elements.

“Most of my work is an amalgamation of all different materials: plastics, wood, paint, metal, household items,” said Massey. “The whole process for a lot of my art is finding relationships between things that weren’t meant to be mixed together, and connecting the dots between objects that couldn’t be more dissimilar.” 

There are several common themes that can be seen throughout Massey’s work; unification of disparate items, inclusion and interaction with the community that surrounds the installations, and an appreciation for broken things. Meeting the composed and articulate artist, it is rather surprising to learn just how much Massey relates to that which has been discarded, forgotten, and under-appreciated. “I related more to the grit and the depth of something that had been used, or broken, or cut, or crushed, and abused and tossed away than some sterile piece of new material… even if it’s not cool and crisp and smooth and beautiful, there’s something honest about it.”

Massey’s artwork has a way of interrupting the life cycle of everyday items. He is captivated by the story they tell, and muses about how everything we create and use was once a marvel of human engineering. It was then utilized, and used, before being abandoned. Those items that would otherwise end up in a landfill (like the one just outside his studio) are then rescued by Massey. In this way they go on to live a new life and tell a new story, all while portraying the scars of the passage of time to which they have been subjected. It is those very marks, the rust and bends and cracks, which intrigue Massey and add the authenticity he constantly seeks in his sculptures.

As we sat together in his studio the afternoon light filtered in through the doors and the sounds of free range chickens roaming the property filled the air, occasionally interrupted by the rumble of a train passing by on the tracks. Artists in neighboring studios could be heard mumbling through the walls. I was taken by Massey’s artistic drive, his passion, candor, humility and most of all his humanity. Before I loaded myself back into my car and left this otherworldly place of art and tools and objects, he led me to a warehouse where he was constructing giant steel hands that reach up to the sky. He clambered up into the framework and got to work. It was there, diligently working with intense concentration, shrouded in sparks and beneath layers of dirt and dust and sweat, that I saw him for what he really is: an artist, a visionary, and innately, truly, alive. 

Isadora Pennington

Photographer, designer, writer, & artist. FILA