FREEPORT – It started with Mr. Clank.
Benjamin Pochurek was just 13 when he first started messing around with pieces of salvaged wood and metal and a welder in the garage of his home.
He was drawn to the idea that he could create something with tools and his hands that could be both aesthetically interesting and have the power to spark conversation.
The result was a figurative sculpture of a robot walking on a barren wasteland. A subtle commentary about machinery and the natural world. The spine was built with alternating hex nuts and washers. Wooden pieces formed the head, neck, shoulders and feet. He named it Mr. Clank.
“Honestly, a lot of it started through school assignments being boring and me trying to find alternative ways to showcase how I wanted to do work,” said Pochurek, now 16. “After Mr. Clank, it just stuck.”
Over the last three years, he has continued to create, and with each completed piece, his technique has become more refined, and the underlying messages have become more urgent.
“He’s really doing something great, isn’t he?” said Matt Barter, an artist in Brunswick who has mentored Pochurek. “He’s got such a big heart, and the things he cares about, he feels deeply.”
Two of his most recent pieces demonstrate an artistic growth and maturity unusual for someone who just got his driver’s license.
In April, Pochurek’s sculpture “Flora Lung” was chosen for an inaugural Tidal Shift Award by the Portland Museum of Art. The award was created to encourage young artists to explore the theme of climate change in their work.
His piece depicts a human sitting on a bare stump, holding seedlings that will eventually fuel a respirator and allow the figure to breathe. He said the idea came from aqua lungs, which were created years ago to let people breathe underwater. His message was that if things continue along the same trajectory, breathable air – and the plants that produce it – will become precious commodities.
“One of the reasons I liked Ben’s piece so much, I was so riveted by the attention to detail, all the different materials he used,” said Samaa Abdurraqib, associate director of the Maine Humanities Council and one of the award’s jurors. “He was very conscious about what he was trying to do. There was a lot of intentionality behind it.”
His most recent sculpture, a commentary on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is similarly provocative.
“Protector” shows a Ukrainian soldier bent down on one knee to protect a sunflower – the national plant of Ukraine – that is sprouting up from the war wreckage around it.
“I’d been thinking a lot about Ukraine and wanting to do something in support of its people, but in a more impactful and personal way,” he said. “I think it’s the most original thing I’ve done so far. And the most satisfying.”
James and Jennifer Pochurek moved their family to Maine from Florida a few years back. Not for any specific reason, just a change of scenery and more opportunities for their children. James is president of a Florida-based archaeological firm with a focus on preserving cultural resources and can do that work from here with occasional travel.
Even before they moved to Maine, Benjamin was interested in art. It was always a favorite subject in school.
For his early attempts at sculpture, Pochurek used hot glue and cardboard, then progressed to a soldering iron. Neither gave him what he was looking for.
It was Barter who put the idea of welding into his head.
Pochurek decided to give it a try.
“The amount of times I burned myself and had things catch fire,” he said of that first attempt. “But after a day of practicing, I was all in.”
He’s continued to perfect his technique in a studio set up in the garage. His parents can no longer park their vehicles inside anymore, but that’s a small sacrifice, his father said. No one in Maine uses their garage for car storage anyway.
“His friends that see his work – how these harsh materials are used to convey something emotional – they think it’s pretty cool,” said James Pochurek.
For Benjamin, it’s been trial by welding fire. He often starts with a sketch, which he refers to in the studio. But a lot of decisions are dictated by whatever materials he has on hand. Scraps of wood, metal, fasteners, all salvaged or recycled.
On “Flora Lung” alone, he used: oak desktop, metal bed frame, cedar, pine, tomato planter, washers, bolts, wire, steel, gears, plastic tubing, wood stain, clay, sand, air plants and small rocks.
“I think his greatest strength is fearlessness,” Barter said, “the ability to dive in head-first and figure it out along the way. Being willing to splash around until you get your bearings, that’s admirable.”
Some of his sculptures were born out of assignments at school, including a piece he did last year titled “Reach.” He wanted to draw attention to education access for girls in Africa. The figure is a girl reaching for a diploma that is just out of reach.
Pochurek got a C on it, something his father still bristles about.
He no longer attends Freeport schools. He enrolled at Waynflete, a private school in Portland that has been supportive of his creative outlets.
The way he thinks about the work, especially his drive to create a deeper meaning, still seems out of place for a teenager.
“I’m floored that he’s able to form these nuanced opinions, and not just that but his ability to translate them into powerful artwork,” James said.
‘AHEAD OF THE GAME’
Pochurek said he understands how some artists or creators might want to stay neutral on a social issue.
That’s not him, though.
“I want people to interact with the work,” he said. Even if they don’t like it or agree with his point of view.
One piece, “Stairclimber,” shows a figure meant to represent marginalized voting communities. Before the figure is a set of stairs, with each step bigger the higher it goes. The last step is too high to climb.
Last year, he was asked to produce a piece for an auction at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The Pochurek family has been supporters of the sustainable farm, which is close to where they live.
His father ended up buying it at the auction.
“I couldn’t bear to see if out of the house,” he said.
Until “Flora Lung,” none of his pieces had wide exposure. Now, his work is on display at the state’s biggest art museum.
“I have yet to be included in any institutions, so he’s way ahead of the game,” Barter said, chuckling. “I think anything you can get as a young artist in terms of exposure, that’s a big deal.”
Abdurraqib, one of the Tidal Shift Award jurors, agreed.
“That’s why the award is so significant, to be able to support young people and tell them their art matters,” she said. “For me, it felt like Ben was a perfect candidate. He fit the hopes and missions of this award.”
The recognition of “Flora Lung” only fueled Pochurek’s creativity. He immediately got to work on his piece on the Ukraine war. One of the reasons he was so compelled to create something lasting was because he saw news coverage of the conflict wane.
He said he was particularly moved by reports of Ukrainians regaining control of Snake Island in the Black Sea in June. It was a stunning act of resiliency, he said, from people fighting for their land.
He has yet to show “Protector,” but already has started his next project, which will tackle the polarization of politics. The working title is “Tug of War.”
“It’s a much more personal idea and something I care very strongly about,” he said.
Pochurek said he hopes to build a portfolio that’s strong enough to be shown in a gallery.
“I’d just love for more people to see them,” he said.
It’s a long way from Mr. Clank.
The hardest part is finding time. Each piece takes between three and four months, depending on how much free time Pockurek has after school and on weekends.
He has other interests, too, and isn’t sure he sees himself as an aspiring artist. He’s working on getting a pilot’s license and is interested in attending the U.S. Air Force or Naval Academy.
For now, though, he relishes his time in the garage, the intense focus needed to create something from nothing and the feeling of satisfaction when a piece is completed.
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