The Art of Recycling
“I handle hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal a week.”
~Richard Benash, New York Times, 2007
Cutting steel is a fundamental part of the larger recycling process. I have been cutting steel every day for 35 years. It’s part of my job. I own R.B. Scrap Iron & Metal, Inc, located in Yonkers, NY. I’m an old school self-made business man. I’m also a self-taught artist. On any given day, people walk into my scrap metal yard and find me cutting out a sculpture while an excavator crushes a car in its jaws overhead. The yard is my studio; the endless flow of mangled steel is my inspiration.
My art is my work. There’s really no way to separate the two. I hunt steel for a living; I climb great heights to get it. My kind of steel sculpture is provoked by the same survival instinct that runs through the blood of every American laborer. There’s something common about what I do; it’s a hard day’s work.
My relationship with steel is based on intimacy and respect. At times, my life quite literally depends upon calculating its retentive strength— I cut down water towers like a surgeon slices through tenuous tissue. And my sculptures reflect that daring suspension between life and death. I connect to that power. I like to believe that I, too, am that strong. My torch: emotions captured during the smelting. The sparks: fluidity and grace under fire. I still find steel that was once made in America. My job is to cut it down. My art then becomes an act of resurrection, sometimes from the very structures I have demolished.
In 2008, I felt compelled to keep the steel floor from a factory interior that I had cut down. The diamond plate was 3/4” thick. I cut out massive trees that stand 12’ tall. I used my excavator to pick them up. They are part of a fence I’m constructing. They are a work in progress. The people in the neighborhood love it.
My steel tree sculptures have evolved over the years since I cut the first one after September 11, 2001. Recently, I started a new series of inch thick steel bridge I-Beam trees, entitled Knowledge. Several steel trees in the Knowledge series have been privately collected. They weigh hundreds of pounds. It takes three of my guys to pick them up. I’m excited by this series. I’m pushing my thirty-five years of cutting to a very heavy place. I feel like I’ve found my niche with this bridge steel.
The bridge I-Beam series is gratifying in the way I get to make living art out of some of the things I’ve destroyed. With each tree I cut, it seems as if I’m somehow capturing nature’s defiant attitude. I believe we all want to see ourselves as that majestic, that strong, that worthy of respect. Or we want to have that defiant attitude back in our lives.
My wife, mixed media artist, Shelita Birchett Benash and I bought an old farm in the Shawangunk Mountains of upstate New York. We’re currently building the Organic Art Farm Studio where we will sell beautiful junk.