For Alvin Huff, identity is interdependent. And self-defined.
Alvin Huff sits before a large, bell-shaped steel structure, threading and tying rope around it and through it. Different patterns intersect with each other, contrasting with curved metal ribs. Huff says this sculpture is inspired by DNA and the worldwide web (of life). At this point, the piece recalls the backside of a server rack—loopy complexity here, tightly organized cabling there, connections everywhere you look.
It’s a major work—one Huff hopes will earn him a coveted artist’s residency, which could mean he’d take some time off from his day job as a systems support analyst for Arizona State University. There, he gets plenty of hands-on experience with actual IT connections, maintaining student computer labs and solving whatever problems arise for students, faculty, and staff.
An artist in the making
“I’m a closet artist, but I’m an IT guy,” says Huff. Few of his co-workers realize the extent of his talent, even though Huff is working on a Master of Fine Arts degree at ASU. He seems to consider his “artist” identity a work in progress—something to be shared at a future date. But a glance around his studio confirms his bona fides.
Huff’s intricate, multi-textured pieces combine the philosophical with the technological in beautiful interplay. Some involve webs of fiber, light, and steel. Many take shape after a complex process that starts on a computer screen using a 3D modeling tool, Rhino—and involves molten metal, a fiery furnace, and hours of milling and design.
Everything is basically vibrating patterns of light. It’s all really made of the same stuff.
Huff credits Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics with the philosophical inspiration behind his work—what Huff calls “interdependent wholeness.” Capra opened his mind to the relationship between quantum physics and eastern mysticism. “Everything is basically vibrating patterns of light,” Huff explains. “It’s all really made of the same stuff.”
Defining his own identity
As the son of an African American father from Macon, Georgia and a Filipino mother from Samar, growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, in what he terms the “Jim Crow Southwest,” Huff was confronted from an early age with racist slurs and the question of identity—what he himself was “made of.”
“I didn’t know it was a question, but it was a question,” he says. “I don’t think it was until I was into my 20s that I realized that identity—it can be given to you—but to a greater degree as you get older, it’s something that you need to define.”
I don’t think it was until I was into my 20s that I realized that identity—it can be given to you—but to a greater degree as you get older, it’s something that you need to define.
After college, Huff spent time in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, and then traveled through southeast Asia. There, he developed an appreciation for ancient architecture and ornamentation. “Here were buildings built before Jesus was born, and the detail at every level was amazing,” he says. “Just looking at the ruins and the material they had to work with—stone, wood, and bronze—I wanted to get into that.”
Get into it he did. Today, you can sometimes find him in the foundry room at ASU, wearing a heavy, flameproof apron and long gloves. Before he puts on the foundry helmet, he ties his dreads back in a white scarf. “I like the roar of the furnace when you turn it on,” he says. “Being in a relationship with something like that—that’s primal—I think is beautiful.”
Heeding the warrior cry
During the day, clad in an argyle sweater and khakis, Huff spends his time problem-solving with computer lab users, or in the server room, maintaining the systems. You might make the mistake of thinking he’s left his passions back in the art studio. But for Huff, IT is a service industry. Interdependence plays a role here, as well. “If you think of it as a technical job, you forget that there are people attached to this equipment,” he says.
Huff gets a thrill out of helping people pursue their passions. Lab users sometimes get upset and frustrated when they’re in the middle of a project and they run into technology obstacles. In the face of that frustration, Huff hears “a warrior cry,” and prides himself on rising to the challenge. “If you’re following your passion and I’m helping you do that—bang—I’m with you,” he says. “I’m on your team.”
If you’re following your passion and I’m helping you do that—bang—I’m with you. I’m on your team.
As an artist working in complex and delicate mediums, Huff faces mistakes and obstacles every day. Overcoming those problems in creative ways, “in a way that I’d think the answer is beautiful,”—and arriving at an “Aha!” moment—that’s the most satisfying part of making art, he says.
To keep making that art, Huff is steadily building his confidence and his status as a sculptor. “Identity is whatever you want it to be,” he says. “The question is, what are you willing to sacrifice for it? If you need people to believe in you, to move forward, how do you reach out and touch them—reach them in a place that is real for them?”
Huff believes we’ve all been granted certain talents. “Those talents are the gifts that are given to you, for you to make yourself happy in this life,” he says. With Huff, it’s clear that day job and art are so intertwined that they enrich each other immeasurably: IT guy and artist, marching to the same beat.