BOWLING GREEN - For Bekele Mekonnen, making a sculpture is like playing with TNT.
“You can explode,” explained the Ethiopian artist-in-residence at Bowling Green State University with a gentle smile. “It gives you unlimited scope. It's boundary-less.”
Clad entirely in white - sandals, pants, shirt, and shema, a traditional thin cotton shawl - the artist bubbles with enthusiasm about his art.
Mr. Mekonnen, 38, has been at the university since mid-March and will remain until June 16. A free exhibition of his work - everything from a charcoal drawing to a welded metal and wood sculpture - is on display in the BGSU student union through June 12.
In some ways, Mr. Mekonnen, who first met BGSU faculty members while he was in Italy, said the final products he creates are not uniquely African in that they are little different from contemporary art one might find in Tokyo or New York City.
“Today, nothing is special about Africa except famine and war,” he said.
Still, the former director of the Addis Ababa School of the Fine Arts and Design in Ethiopia reflects his background in his work, even down to the variety of materials that he uses in some of his nonrepresentational pieces.
His BGSU exhibition includes a smattering of metal, wood, limestone, Plexiglas, rope, and even syringes. The father of two explained that back home materials can be difficult to come by.
“I have to transform everything into art,” he said.
The thought process is different as well.
“You bring out what you have inside,” he said.
The Ethiopian language, Amharic, allows one word to have several meanings, and there is a literary tradition called “wax and gold” that conveys both obvious and hidden meanings to readers.
Mr. Mekonnen adapted this tradition to art in several exhibition pieces involving bullet shells and syringes, which he said goes beyond their cylindrical, harmonious forms to their roles in killing and healing.
During his brief time in Ohio, Mr. Mekonnen has conducted slide shows and worked feverishly in the studio. His warm presence and endearing demeanor have been a boost for students and faculty, said Shawn Morin, head of BGSU's sculpture program
“I think it broadens the scope of those who have been fortunate to interact with him,” he said. “The way he works is very free. For me, a lot of times I get hung up on technique.”
Mr. Mekonnen's spontaneous style in working with steel has helped spread enthusiasm for the material to students who had been reluctant to use it, Mr. Morin said.
“He was able to show people it's really a lot of fun,” he said. “He really seemed to simplify it, take the mystery out of it.”