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Metal Therapy

Larry Heath's three-dimensional odyssey

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Larry Heath is bent over a four-foot sheet of metal, which is braced on a workbench in his front yard. Upon the surface of the metal he's written, in black and red magic markers, measurements and sketches of a pond, barn, cotton field, trees, and shiny, happy people milling about. In the coming weeks, this rudimentary pastoral landscape will take on an intricate, three-dimensional life that is amazingly elaborate, detailed and substantial, yet also flexible and fragile. Heath, somewhat obsessively, explains to me how he will create this work of art using nothing but a hammer, tin snips, chisel and his own gnarled, callused hands. I nod at regular intervals, feigning comprehension; his mind is able to wrap around the details of shapes and dimensions and how they intersect and fit together in a way mine never could.Larry's mind, it seems, has always served him well, while his body has failed him time and time again. Larry was born with several birth defects, including paralysis of the right side of his face and a degenerative spine disease. It was the rough beginning of a very rough life.

There's a gnome-like quality to Larry. He's short and squat and tends to walk around in his bare feet. Much like his metal sculptures, he seems sturdy at first glance, but upon closer inspection you notice he moves with a fragile stiffness. He leads me inside his house in Hickory, NC, which is decorated with dozens of his metal sculptures. They range from simple little boats and cars to amazingly elaborate pieces like "The Arbor," an idyllic country setting with kids playing on a merry-go-round and a see-saw and a family enjoying a picnic, all of which is enveloped by a latticework of trees and branches. Somehow, Larry is able to take complex images like this that "light up in his head" and transfer them onto a single piece of metal that he cuts, snips and folds until the entire scene emerges. It's an uncanny skill, or gift, as Larry calls it, and one that grows all the more impressive when you study the intricacies and detail of the work, and consider he uses no glues, screws, welds, or electric tools.

"Larry is an amazing artist," says Barry Huffman, president of the North Carolina Folk Art Society. "There is no one else working in this medium. Each one of his creations is more complex and interesting than the one before. Not many people have the vision and spatial concepts to do what he does. I think he is definitely one of the best folk artists working in the South today."

Nearly all of Larry's metal sculptures depict a peaceful family setting. The angst-free, Hallmark quality of his work couldn't be more different than the life he's led. Larry's mother tried to hide the fact that she was pregnant with him by wearing a corset. As an unmarried woman in the mid-1940s, having a child out of wedlock, especially in Virginia, was simply not tolerated. But eventually the truth came out, and rather than shame the family, she was sent away to Baltimore to stay with her married sister and have the baby in secret. A few weeks after Larry was born, his grandmother sent for his aunt and her husband, who moved to Norfolk, Virginia, with Larry in tow. For the next 17 years, Larry was raised believing his aunt and uncle were his mother and father.

It was a rough 17 years. He spent most of it in the hospital, where he underwent nearly 30 surgeries to try to reconstruct his face and repair his spine. At home things weren't any easier. His aunt, who was essentially forced to take him, resented Larry, and often abused and neglected him.

"She wasn't an evil bitch, but she liked to drink and party and raise a little hell," Larry says. "My daddy (actually his uncle) was an old Louisiana Cajun, a man's man, and he wasn't what you'd call very touchy-feely."

All of which resulted in Larry growing up angry, confused and emotionally shut down. Other kids teased him about how he looked, and he consequently got into a lot of fights. Finally, at the age of 17, he discovered the truth about his birth mother during one of his aunt's frequent drinking binges.

"It was the only time she'd have anything to do with me," Larry says. "She'd be slurring and spitting and sputtering her words, and she'd always say, "Son, someday you'll understand why I do this.' Well one day I called her on it. I knew something wasn't right, and I bluffed her. She thought I knew everything, and she broke down and told me the truth. It answered a lot of questions."

Larry left home at 18, but a dark cloud continued to follow him. Literally. While working a summer job, he was struck by approximately 23,000 volts of electricity while moving a power line from atop a roof. The shock knocked him off the roof and to the ground four floors below. "I was dead when I hit the ground," Larry says. "The medics revived me. I was in a coma for 20 days, and spent 13 months in a full-body cast."

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