Ari Gutman whipped out a purple Crown Royal drawstring bag, pulled the top open and took out a pack of pale tan clay instead of whiskey — something he said sometimes elicits jokes from people wherever he takes the bag.
After he tore off a chunk of the clay, he rolled it around between his fingers. With an iced coffee on the table beside him at Mama Mocha’s Coffee Emporium, he began crafting his miniature sculpture.
He chuckled as he remembered the first time he came to sculpt there, his Crown Royal bag in tow.
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘ Are you going to spike your coffee?’” he said, smiling. “And I was like, ‘No, this is my clay.’ I keep telling myself I should get a different bag, but, you know, it [the bag of clay] fits.”
Gutman frequents the coffee shop along with a couple Auburn restaurants, where owners and employees are accustomed to his tools, paints and clay creations. At Mama Mocha’s, he began working on a bee sculpture.
About 11 years ago, Gutman saw a sculpture of a mask and said he remembered thinking he could create something similar. He sculpted his own mask, liked the way it looked and continued creating, teaching himself along the way.
The first time he remembers making a sculpture for somebody else was in 2006 when he made his girlfriend a rose. Since 2006, he estimated he’s made about 170 different pieces.
About six years later, Gutman began sculpting more frequently after experiencing several losses in his family within a few months of also going through a divorce.
“Then I started sculpting more to get my mind off of things,” he said. Most of the sculptures he made during that time he gave away. “Maybe seeing the recipients’ reactions made me happy and focus on the positive aspects of my life.”
Since 2012, he has pursued the art more consistently, he said. It serves as a creative pastime outside of work. Gutman came to Auburn in 1997 and received his undergraduate and master’s degree from the University. Now he teaches Spanish and is a coordinator of the elementary Spanish program.
He has thought about making a career out of sculpting but isn’t sure how to enter the field. His mother has encouraged him to go back to school to study art, but Gutman said he doesn’t know if he will do it.
He’s considered trying claymation, he
Just like it requires time, creating the sculptures also requires patience. The sculpting, he said, doesn’t take that long, but the painting is tedious. When Gutman finishes the pieces to his sculpture, he takes them next to his toaster oven. He dials it up to 275 degrees, bakes the clay for 10–15 minutes then finishes them later with acrylic paint before gluing everything together.
Most sculptures he makes for friends, but occasionally, he’ll sell them. He’s sold about 10 pieces.
One commission for a wedding topper came when someone started a conversation with Gutman at the coffee shop while he was sculpting.
The couple who were getting married were both nurses, and the groom played the saxophone, Gutman explained. So he made a sculpture of the two in a hospital wearing stethoscopes and scrubs — white scrubs for the bride and black scrubs for the groom — and painted their tennis shoes their favorite colors.
He positioned the groom on one knee playing the saxophone with a trail of hearts coming out of the instrument and into her hand, with the last heart in her palms inscribed with their initials.
The majority of his pieces are given away, though. He brought a piece he had just made for a friend’s birthday with him to Mama Mocha’s.
He opened a small box and pulled out a sculpted Olaf from the movie “Frozen” holding an open laptop. On the screen, it had the word “Netflix,” and on the laptop front it
His friend had requested something that included Netflix and Olaf, and he took care of the rest.
Gifting his art, Gutman said, is part of why he continues to create.
“When I give it to someone, they’re just so happy,” he said.
Of all his works, he said he has made about 20 for himself. About two months ago, Gutman began working on his first series of sculptures that go together as a set, which he dubbed “
The comedic pieces feature animals holding dishes made from their own meat. One is a chicken holding a bucket of drumsticks; another is a fish holding a plate of sushi in one
“I want to say indirectly it came from Chick-fil-A,” he said, noting how the cow mascots always urge people to eat chicken instead of beef.
Gutman, who had slowly been working on creating a clay
Though his schedule fluctuates, Gutman said he tries to sculpt about a couple times per week. Sometimes he’ll stay home to create, but when he heads out to an eatery to sculpt or paint a baked piece, he’s creating among friends.
Gutman fashioned a "Sailor Moon" with McEuen's face on it, surprising McEuen with the gesture.
Gutman comes in to grab coffee nearly every day and sometimes chats with the baristas when business slows down, McEuen said, adding that his presence supplies a sense of community in the coffee shop.
"He's a good staple of our shop," McEuen said. "And we love having him around."