MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio — Mozart composed music at only 5 years old. Similarly, Chris McConnell’s career as an artist began when he was only 5 years old.
“My sister was coloring, and I thought, ‘I can do a lot better than her,’” he said.
From painting to drawing to working with metal, the now 23-year-old Mesopotamia resident has immersed himself in all forms of art.
McConnell always dreamed of attending an art school. He started out at Lakeland Community College, where he met Daniel Whitely, a professor he considers his hero.
“He constantly pushed me to continue to improve,” McConnell said.
After completing a two-year program at Lakeland, he attended Kent State University for a semester and then decided to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“At CIA, you’re pretty much thrown to the dogs,” McConnell said. “It’s more ‘real-world,’ and you learn to fend for yourself.”
In order to be accepted to the Cleveland art school, McConnell needed an attention-getting addition to his art portfolio.
He began constructing a giant horse outside of his home. Scott Schaden, owner of End of the Commons General Store, decided to buy the horse to display outside his store. He then asked McConnell to construct a proportional buggy.
Mesopotamia residents claim McConnell has constructed the world’s largest Amish horse and buggy. The horse measures 13.5 feet tall and 12 feet long, while the buggy is 18 feet tall and also 12 feet long. The entire structure is about 35 feet long.
McConnell’s next project came just two weeks later and a few miles from the horse and buggy project.
Donna Vancura, owner of Vancura Gallery of Fine Art in Middlefield, Ohio, contacted McConnell about constructing a large piece of art to attract customers to her store.
From start to finish, he spent about two months constructing the cow that now sits outside the store. Vancura purchased all of the materials and paid McConnell a fee for his work.
He first made a drawing of a cow and, inspired from his earlier structural creation, began the framework in wood.
He then decided to use steel to form the outside of the cow. However, he wanted materials that were inexpensive and recycled.
This idea led him to a junkyard in Painesville, Ohio, a town a little more than 20 miles from Middlefield. He found car hoods for $15 each.
Although McConnell did almost all of the work himself, he is quick to credit his neighbor, Wayne, a 13-year-old Amish boy who helped in the transportation of supplies and with painting the cow.
While both McConnell and Vancura were pleased about the use of materials, the car hoods proved to be trickier than they thought.
“It was difficult to get the shape right,” McConnell explained. “Wayne and I had to beat the hoods with rubber mallets, and I used hand shears to strip the framework from the hoods.”
McConnell worked from the end of the cow forward to the head, saving smaller pieces of hoods for more complex areas of the cow, such as the shoulder, neck and head.
One area in particular that caused the artist problems was the region from the hook or hip bone on the backside of the cow down to the stomach. Because the cow is lying down, this region was difficult to shape the way McConnell wanted it.
“I spent a whole day fixing that stomach,” he said. “If you can recognize flaws in your work and you don’t at least try to change it, you shouldn’t be an artist.”
McConnell used baseballs for eyes on the cow and a rope from a Lake Erie shipping yard for the tail.
The final structural challenge was the cow’s rear foot that hangs slightly off the platform.
“I was thinking about how I wanted to shape that foot for two months,” he said. “It’s very artistic and gives the cow that lazy, relaxed look.”
Because he was unable to find photos that showed the angle and proper positioning, McConnell said the foot was especially tricky, but he is happy with how it turned out.
After 25 car hoods were welded together, the outer shell was complete and the cow was ready for painting.
McConnell’s friend Wayne painted five coats of driveway-sealer tar to give the cow the black base.
McConnell then used a white oil-based paint to make the white spots, a task that will need redone soon, he said.
At 16 feet long and 7 feet tall, the cow has definitely helped Vancura’s Gallery of Fine Art stand out.
Since completing the cow, McConnell has plenty to keep him busy.
He is making a 4-foot sculpture of a steelhead trout for the Geauga Park District, and is also helping a classmate with a project in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The majority of McConnell’s current work is being completed at Chelsea Flower Garden in Middlefield, Ohio, owned by Timothy Schaefer.
McConnell has plans to construct a 28-foot butterfly house, as well as a gazebo and other structures on the nursery’s facilities.
“When I first saw Chris’ work, I thought, ‘Boy, is this kid gifted,’” Schaefer said. “I’m so excited to see how this place is enhanced with his creations.”
McConnell and Schaefer share a passion to protect the environment and promote sustainability in all that they do.
All of McConnell’s projects require materials that have been recycled, and at Chelsea Flower Garden, he has a wide selection.
“We don’t throw much away around here,” Schaefer said. “We find some way to use it.”
McConnell is currently constructing hanging basket holders from hayrake pieces and used wire.
Schaefer is hopeful McConnell’s work will inspire others to take environmental responsibility and the arts and blend the two together.
“The absence of sparkle and inquisitiveness from people’s everyday lives disturbs me,” Schaefer said.
“Chris’ work shows more than you or I can say with words.”
With a year left at the Cleveland Institute of Art, McConnell plans to “say” a lot more with his work. He even hopes to spend a semester in Italy studying sculpture.
He is also scouting out a location for his next large structure, a 116-yard long dragon.
McConnell hopes to find a warmer, drier climate to begin his work, and he estimates the project will cost about $30,000.
For those looking to pursue lofty dreams similar to his, McConnell has one word of advice, “Practice.”
McConnell enjoys drawing flowers, with a special fondness for roses. In his first rose drawing, he said he was unable to put himself in the drawing and he was unable to get his feelings out.
He was happier with the second rose and even happier with the third.
“By the 2,000th rose, I think I nailed it,” he said.
McConnell said he tries to apply that same concept to his life.
“I’m constantly trying to improve myself and improve my work,” he said. “I never want to limit myself.”