Chemical Engineering and Art Come Together for Graduating Senior Alex Joy
Alex Joy (BFA-Art ’22, Metals) originally came to WSU in 2018 to study Chemical Engineering. Joy, who grew up in Warren and then Grosse Pointe Farms, developed an interest in chemistry while still in high school. However, after two semesters at WSU, he recognized that his greater passion was toward a creative path, and he took advantage of the many opportunities afforded by a large university.
“When I was looking into chemical engineering, I knew that Wayne State University was known as a well-respected engineering and chemical school. I considered other schools, but I chose Wayne State because it was affordable and convenient. It also is very unique in that it has a mix of everything at a R1 university,” he said, referring to WSU’s ranking as a university with the highest level of research activity.
Branching Out Before Returning to Art
Before switching from Chemistry to Art, Joy took time to explore other subjects including courses in literature, philosophy, and anthropology. The course Shakespeare (ENG 2200), taught by Dr. Jaime Goodrich, still stands out, today, when he reflects on his development as an artist. “We learned about Shakespeare by reading “King Lear” six times! And writing six different essays on it. The process of analysis really struck me as a valuable thing to take away and apply to my work as an artist.”
Positive experiences with metals and ceramics classes at Grosse Pointe South High School and projects with his father at home motivated him to explore art courses at WSU. “I’ve had an exposure to art, creativity, and building for as long as I can remember,” he said. “My dad took on a many home repair projects and has a well-stocked garage and workshop. I started learning from him and building my own projects, like making a model car for Boy Scouts Pine Derby. I was always interested in making and tinkering with things.”
A jewelry-making course helped him reconnect with that love of making. “I did a few 3D art classes in high school, and I enjoyed them,” he said, “I realized that making things was what made me the happiest, and if I was going to be spending the money on tuition, I thought, ‘I might as well enjoy it.’”
His circuitous path led him to the place he was meant to be, he noted. However, “the one piece of advice that I have for students is to explore while you have the opportunity. While I think that this is what I would have ended up doing — no matter what — it took me a little longer to realize that this is where I wanted to be.”
Joy has also returned to his high school to encourage younger students. In sharing his experiences, he emphasizes the value of pursuing art at the university level. “I talk about being an artist in college and trying to make it as an artist. I talk about my experiences of trying to be in shows and get recognition, while also trying to explain to them that if art is something that you're interested in — if it is your main interest —it’s worth exploring it at a university level. There is more technology, tools, and special techniques in the 2.5-hour studio sessions than the 45-minute high school class can offer.”
While studying in the department, Joy has taken advantage of WSU’s emphasis on research and has received university research grants to work on papers for specific techniques, processes, or equipment in the metals studio. He also recently wrote a manual for a new laser welder that has sat idle since 2020 due to the pandemic and distance learning. “There’s money around for students to explore and research these techniques. It provides a different incentive to experiment and learn more about the studio techniques, and the way that they can be used.”
Reconnecting with Chemistry Through Metals
In studying art, Joy discovered a love for the opportunity to create physical representations of concepts that he was exploring. In studying metals, he is also not walking away from his original interests in chemical engineering. “Studying chemical engineering made me very conscious of a lot of things related to my work as a metalsmith. There can be very specific chemistry in metalsmithing, and my chemical engineering classes made me conscious of that. It made me conscious of the more technical aspects of everything, and always taking that into consideration when creating something. When doing whatever it is you do, I think it's important to understand what is behind it. You can produce better results than you might intend, and it might have been more complicated or harder to get to if you didn't understand why something happened the way it did.”
Joy appreciates metals for the great range of approaches and challenges it offers, both technically and physically. “From my experience,” he says, working in “metals demands a very great range of techniques and abilities. There are aspects of it that require a great deal of physicality as a maker, be it casting or forging or any other number of tasks where the process can be very strenuous and dangerous.”
He also enjoys the sense of contrast and contradiction that comes with the intensity of the process versus the delicateness of the result. “You’re working with such small pieces of delicate and expensive material,” he said. “You will be casting at like 1,200 degrees or something, wearing full-on fire-retardant gear head to toe, and then, 30 minutes later, you’re still handing a little object or gem that has to be delicately set without cracking anything. It's a very unique feeling of being at both ends of the spectrum of creating.”
Bringing Conceptual Art to Jewelry Making
Joy describes his work as very conceptual, rooted in ideas of possession, personal experiences, and relationships. One project, entitled Distance is an example of his thinking. The piece is a necklace that is suspended in a Plexiglas box, attached at the corners in a way so that it moves and sways with the movement of the box, which itself is suspended when on display. The concept of the piece is about emphasizing the distance placed between the viewer and jewelry itself, either by the wearer or in the ways that jewelry is usually displayed. “So much of my experience with jewelry is seeing it in a case or looking at someone else wearing it,” he explained. “There's usually a degree of separation for the person that is viewing these high-end pieces. I wanted to be able to recreate that feeling.”
Another piece, entitled On Display, focuses on Joy’s personal relationship with construction materials, and where his work as a contractor meets his work as an artist. The piece consists of a 6-foot tall box that references a shipping crate. The box has a hole for a hand to be inserted and, on the inside, is a hand on a hinge that the viewer can shake. “It was a very literal piece about interacting with art, where there is a direct interaction, but also a degree of separation,” he said. The materials also tell the story of his work as a contractor. “The techniques that I've learned and gained from doing plumbing, or drywall, or carpentry have very much influenced my thinking about materials like that Plexiglas box or the box that I made from plywood that I bought from Home Depot.”
Joy’s work today is about the ways that everyday objects hold memories. One example is the piece entitled Nick, which replicates one of his old work boots with copper and brass wire stitching. “When I first got those boots, which I had thrifted, my friend Nick polished them for me,” he explained. The copper version acknowledges that kindness and the impact the gesture had on a simple possession.
The copper boot inspired a new direction for Joy. “Since making the copper boot, I've been recreating objects that mean so much to me, but that I want to see in a more permanent way or through a reinterpreted lens,” he says. The series, which is still in progress, will include six or seven objects in metal that are representations of either friendships and family relationships, where the object is a tangible representation of an experience with a person in his life. The series includes a pair of earbuds that he and his girlfriend listened to music through, and sunglasses that resurrect a pair that his grandfather gave him as a child.
Finding A Creative Community in Detroit
Creating at WSU, and as a member of the wider artistic cohort within Detroit, has expanded and enhanced Joy’s work. “There’s a great sense of community at Wayne State among our Metals students. My professors have helped me experiment and find the right techniques for what I want to do, and then provided the criticism and suggestions of avenues for further exploration. That support has really encouraged me to stay here. I’m going to miss it,” he said.
Two professors, in particular, have left a lasting impact in their support for Joy and the other students in the program. “Evan Larson-Volts is an incredible professor and a great fit for me. He is relatable and encourages students to experiment and try things that even might be outside of their coursework,” Joy explained. Professor Eric Troffkin motivated Joy to take on a deeper level of involvement farther back in process, for example, going to the foundry to help with pours.
There's a great sense of community and camaraderie in Detroit, Joy noted. “Most people who are active right now are doing something that is interesting and worth knowing about. There is also a sense of competition in that we all want to see each other succeed in this, and so we set a high bar and keep upping the bar. I feel this community has pushed me to produce work that I want to share and put out there.” Joy recently participated in the exhibit entitled An Observation of Comfort Objects at the Collective Behaviors Gallery in the North End Neighborhood of Detroit. “Artists here are doing amazing shows. I was lucky enough to be a part of one of them.”
Commitment is one value that has been burnished by these mentorship and peer partnership experiences. “If you're going to do something, do it fully,” Joy said. “I don't think that there’s much value in picking something if you’re not going to stick with it and do it to the very best of your ability.”