Artist Randy Mendre decorates downtown with heavy metal sculptures
Gradually, inexorably, a half-dozen front yards of mid-century modern homes in the historic John S. Park neighborhood have begun sprouting metal statuary. Over there, an 11-foot-tall totem of steel cubes towers mightily above a xeriscaped cactus garden. Over here, in another drought-tolerant patch, a patina-crusted crescent moon stands 5 feet in height. As you cruise around John S. Park, and around other surrounding ’hoods like Huntridge, you’ll notice that these distinctive and attractive outdoor artworks are proliferating at a satisfyingly steady clip.
The artist responsible for these handcrafted sculptures is Randy Mendre, a Park resident who gave up an air-conditioned, numbers-crunching livelihood as a Las Vegas oddsmaker in exchange for a welder’s mask, leather gloves and an avalanching pile of steel in the hot desert sun.
When my sports bookkeeping business collapsed five years ago, I felt I had to reinvent myself as a sculptor,” he says over lunch at The Goodwich. “I’ve always been artsy, but my dad had discouraged me from applying to art school.
At the not-so-tender age of 44, Mendre (currently 49) had an opportunity to forge a new path. He did a 180, in fact, and went from handling bets online and over the phone to mixing concrete, building greenhouses and sourcing repurposed steel. His transformation also involved determining where he could make a real contribution as an artist.
“I never build things simply for the fun of it,” he says. “When I look at something—a yard, a house, a restaurant like this one—I think to myself: How can I make an impact here? What can I do to make this better? I don’t sit around in the dark and hide my work away from the world so I can call myself an artist.”
It wasn’t long before his work drew notice. In 2014, at the 16th Annual Southern Nevada Landscape Awards competition, Mendre won first place for Residential Design by Homeowner and the Yard Warrior Award. His 2,000-square-foot front yard boasts cactuses (most grown from cuttings taken from existing plants rather than purchased) and installations made from recycled metal. He also gained attention—and blew minds—with his commanding presentation before the city of Las Vegas’ Main Street Signature Sculpture commission in November. (He ultimately lost the bid to an artist whose work had already appeared in galleries near and along Main Street.)
One thing becomes glaringly obvious: Mendre is competitive. He confesses a readiness to make and re-make a design five times, a hundred times, to improve it only marginally. But margins, as in bookkeeping, are everything. He sweats every detail, he says, in order to ensure the best concept. If it doesn’t look right or feel right, he’ll take things apart and put it back together until it’s where it needs to be.
“I’m sure other artists might do what they do differently, but this is my process,” he admits. “It works for me. I have to be happy, and the client has to be happy.”
Mendre insists he strives for timelessness. He wants to create things that will make an impression now and, with luck, in a thousand years. Interestingly, his style fuses two concurrent postwar architectural modes that you wouldn’t instantly think go together—namely, brutalism (which accentuates raw, rugged seriousness) and mid-century modern (which emphasizes clean, organic designs).
“I’m a mid-century modern guy, living in a mid-mod house,” he says. “But I’m also drawn to the simplicity and geometric shapes, the unfinished concrete and raw materials and the steel of architectural brutalism. I’m not a purist by any stretch.”
Mendre loves architecture and art that looks like it might have erupted right out of the earth. He loves it when steel is left to rust, the concrete unfinished. He also enjoys color. He’ll blend bohemian flourishes, incorporate on-the fringe tweaks. He’s not afraid to straight-up paint a wall green.
At one time in his life, Mendre was a searcher. He still adheres to Eastern-influenced ideas. He won’t agree to a project for money. He prefers landscaping and making sculptures for people whose personalities he admires. And he’s always eager to solve the problem of how to make an outside space more beautiful.
So why the great outdoors?
“I’d rather have a thousand public-art pieces out in the world for people to stumble upon, years down the road,” he explains, “than to have a dozen pieces gathering dust in a gallery or museum.”
Once Mendre takes on a project, he gets obsessive. Talking with him often feels, at least to this writer, like standing at the edge of an affable windstorm. You never know what will come out of his mouth, but it’s always fascinating, with cool twists and turns, like riding a rollercoaster in the dark. He brings his passionate nature to everything he does, including tower running. For 10 years, he competitively raced flights of stairs and got chased out of every downtown hotel-casino parking garage by slow-footed security for training in stairwells. As if to underscore this moment in our conversation, the manager at The Goodwich approaches our table and remarks that he recently spotted Randy jogging downtown well after midnight.
Suddenly, it dawns on me: We’re sitting beneath one of Mendre’s artworks, which hangs on the wall above us. It’s a citrus-colored (orange and lemon) explosion of geometric squares that, on first glance, seems easily alluring. On closer inspection, the piece exudes a rock ’n’ roll aura. Mendre confirms my suspicion by revealing he chose the colors based on The Goodwich owner Josh Clark’s sunburst Les Paul electric guitar.
“Downtown, everything is wide open,” he says. “There are too many restrictions in HOA communities, where my sculptures would run up against problems.”
When he tore out the 50-year-old olive trees in his front yard, he raised some eyebrows, sure. Ultimately, though, everyone was impressed with his sculpture and cactus garden, so he ended up landscaping their plots, too.
“The best thing about downtown is that people here tend to lean toward the arts,” he says. “There are so many interesting people and artists and talents living here. If a creative person moves out, two more move in, it seems.”
Mendre is in a constant state of education and relishes learning from others. He’s back in college, working on a fine arts degree at UNLV in an effort “to become a better artist.” Naturally, he’s the oldest guy in classes full of 18 year olds.
“To be close-minded and not accepting of new ideas is foolish,” he says. “A lot of people live in fear, afraid of grabbing the wheel. They prefer the back seat. I’m not scared of anything. You have to fail; it’s part of the process. I’d rather fail a thousand times and make one great sculpture.”
When not making statues for school gardens in the Clark County School District (he’s done two and hopes to win a grant to build totems for every campus as part of his 101 Suns project), he’s overflowing with ideas. Take, for instance, 93 Sun Dial (93 represents the millions of miles our planet lies from the sun), a self-explanatory centerpiece for a downtown steel-domed botanical garden and entertainment park he hopes to pitch to the investors, the city, “anyone who has the balls to build a Las Vegas version of Central Park.”
He has an idea, too, for Bob Foley, the investor responsible for bringing an NHL expansion hockey team to Las Vegas.
“I have an idea for a hockey-themed sculpture in front of the T-Mobile Arena,” he says. “I have the concept all done. It’s ready to go. I’d love to build it.”
Spoken like a heavy-metal competitor.
For more info on Randy Mendre’s sculptures and art, visit mendresculptures.com