“I take these pieces that are thrown away, I put them together and spray gold paint on it. And now it looks divine. It’s really about anti-materialism.”
When you walk into Sasha Meret’s studio, it’s hard to distinguish if it’s an artist’s space or a collection of random metal parts. Two large windows light the room, illuminating the thousands of discarded scraps that come together to make intricate pieces of art. Knives and spoons come together to make armor, clustered spikes on a mannequin make something reminiscent of a bed of nails and golden wire hangs from the ceiling in a tangled mess.
The 62-year-old Romanian-born, Astoria-based artist, who created this inspired jumble, was once a successful magazine illustrator in the 1990’s. But more recently, he has built a surprising assemblage of his work from his 33 years in the art world. Some of his most well-known pieces are his collections of armor and statues made from discarded metal pieces that he has found off the street or in thrift stores. The use of metal in his work distinguishes his work on its own, but something else makes it stand out even more: everything in this room was made since he was diagnosed 15 years ago with Parkinson’s disease, a condition known for intense tremors and stiffness.
“I have to split myself so that I can prolong myself.”
But you wouldn’t be able to tell from the sophisticated detail of the metal work around him. It’s elaborate, detailed and a little uncomfortable. For Meret, the art has also been his gateway to coping with his disease.
“There is an ‘I’ that doesn’t have Parkinson’s,” he says. “I have to split myself so that I can prolong myself.”
After the initial shock of his diagnosis in 2003 and a period of adjustment to his condition, he discovered that when he is focused on his work, the tremors decreased substantially. Although the intensity of his tremors changes over time, they are a part of his everyday life.
That he feels better when we works isn’t that unusual among sufferers of the disease. According to Leslie Chambers, president and CEO of American Parkinson Disease Association, the resting tremors, one of the most noticeable symptoms Meret suffers from, are known by scientists to sometimes subside when focusing on an activity. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that does generally get worse over time, optimizing lifestyle choices and social support are the best ways to handle the disease besides traditional medication and surgery.
When Meret realized that focusing on his art was a temporary remedy for the tremors, he became a workaholic, and barely slept—a development which troubled his doctors. Difficulty sleeping is a major non-motor symptom of Parkinson’s, says Chambers. For Meret, the lack of sleep doesn’t bother him since it lets him work at what he loves best—creating art.
“At night, I couldn’t sleep well,” Meret said. “Maybe only two or three hours a night. Doctors always get upset with that, they say you need at least a strict eight hours or you die. Well, I guess I’m dead then.”
“They say you need at least a strict eight hours or you die. Well, I guess I’m dead then.”
Meret’s obsession with art isn’t new. He’s been at it since he was a child in Bucharest, Romania, he experimented with different kinds of art, mostly drawings with pencils and when he could find them, markers and watercolor. Then, 1981, he became a professional illustrator for publications like the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Washington Post. While he worked as an illustrator for over 20 years, he also painted, sculpted and made prints.
But after his diagnosis, he stopped full-time work and increasingly stayed in his studio, working longer hours on his art than before. The extra time spent at the studio helped the quality of his art, he said. In a way, Parkinson’s disease was a blessing in disguise for him.
He found inspiration in surprising places. At the end of 2003, for example, he read a book that featured the piece “Diamond Skull” by Damien Hirst, which is a human skull covered completely with authentic diamonds. Meret then went and found a replica of a human skull and mimicked the diamond effect, but with thumbtacks instead.
“I attached it with epoxy, sharp part up, making it look like a jewel as untouchable as the other but for different reasons,” he said. Tinkering with other metals followed—and then he turned to metal objects he found in the trash, which he then sculpted into works of art.
“My goal is to be surprised. If I’m not surprised, I keep working on it.”
He says that because of their disposable nature, many of his creations are inherently political. He is currently working on a collection called “Underserved Divinities,” which is based on taking things that people don’t want and giving them meaning. In a way, collecting items that were thrown away, or considered finished by others, is a kind of commentary on himself and his disease. Just because something seems like it is broken or doesn’t have use doesn’t mean that’s necessarily true, he says.
“It’s a matter of what people value,” Meret said. “I take these pieces that are thrown away, I put them together and spray gold paint on it. And now it looks divine. I call all of my pieces divine. It’s really about anti-materialism.”
In the center of his studio mayhem is a piece Meret named the “Divine Penguin in Ceremonial Armor.” It is based off a Romanian story about a penguin and the journey it goes on. The armor is inspired by legendary warriors, known as bogatyr, from the epic East Slavic legends he read as a child.
Meret delivers powerful social messages with his art, but he’s also playful in his art’s meaning at the same time by not taking it too seriously. On a dark shelf on the edge of a wall, for example, Meret points out what looks like a lumpy figure in a small seat. He says that it is Donald Trump in a wheelchair, giving the imagery of FDR, implying that Trump is a lame duck.
When he creates, he doesn’t start with a plan, he says. He just builds until he creates something he is happy with.
“My goal is to be surprised,” Meret said. “If I’m not surprised, I keep working on it.”
Most of his work is influenced by history, culture and science. His mind seems like an unending well of knowledge, pulling up fact after fact without effort.
Although he mocks society on a regular basis, he still hopes his work imparts some good. He said that he wants his work to be remembered “for [the] humanity, in the good sense.”
His own human connections have suffered, though, because he works so much on his art. He admits that he doesn’t see his family or friends nearly as much as he did before he had Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s not that I don’t want to be around my family, because I do,” Meret said. “But if I don’t work for a weekend, my tremors get bad. I can’t sit around like that.”
This is, in part, the reason why he works so much. But mostly he doesn’t want to think of himself as disabled.
“They have these apps that ask you how you are feeling throughout the day,” Meret said. “I feel fine. Leave me alone. There is so much focus on being sick.”
At the end of the day, he just wants to be himself — an artist who is known for his work, not for his illness.