MANCHESTER, England — A red-brick Edwardian church on a leafy residential street might not look like the natural destination for contemporary art treasure. But head down the stairs and into its basement and you’ll find Rust: The Art Gallery, the world’s first gallery dedicated entirely to — you guessed it — the aesthetic joy of rust.
Stephen Raw, the 69-year-old artist behind the project, has been working out of the church basement in South Manchester for the last 15 years. He has been photographing and collecting rusty objects since he was 17, compelled by the rainbow of color that rust creates. “Oranges and reds and even blues, in the right circumstances,” he tells Hyperallergic, equally enthralled by the way rust erodes objects into something more otherworldly.
Before the gallery’s inception, Stephen already had what he termed a Cabinet of Curiosities — some converted shelves — at home, on which he stored his rust collection. “Then I thought, I’ve got too many wonderful pieces here. Why don’t I turn that storeroom in the church into a gallery space?”
Two years of renovation followed, and after a close friend died of COVID-19 on the first day of the UK lockdown, it lit a fire under Stephen to finish the project. “I was around the same age and vaccines weren’t yet available. I said to myself, blimey, if I end up on a ventilator and I haven’t made my gallery what I always imagined it would be, I would be furious.”
Quality is key. Stephen doesn’t display any old rusty object, and laughs about a friend trying to give him “some old rusty spanner.” Instead, he prizes objects in particular that have rusted to a state where they’re beyond identification, which he says lends a sculptural quality. He sources most of his rusty objects on the Scottish island of Mull, where he’s been going on camping holidays with his family for the last 35 years. He prizes the island for both its climate (“Being near sea spray helps encourage the rusting process”) as well its remote location, since ferrous metal needs to lie undisturbed for a long time to transform into rust: he believes some of the objects in the gallery are over 100 years old.
Unlike in a normal gallery, conservation is discouraged — a former coal shute in the space means that whenever it rains, the pieces get weathered even further. Visitors are also encouraged to touch all but the most delicate of the artifacts, “since texture is so important,” he explains. When fragments of rust flake off, Stephen changes the bag in his vacuum to one specially allocated for the rust droppings.
“It’s a bit of a faff to change the bag in my Henry Hoover,” he says, “but I hope that all the objects I exhibit will eventually end up in that bag, as a poetic example of entropy.”