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Metal

Introduction

My first welded metal sculptures were produced in sculpture class at college. I had done a few wooden sculptures during my years as an apprentice at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Companyís Apprentice School, where I went after high school but nothing in metal. My apprentice years taught me to arc-weld and the possibilities of acetylene welding intrigued me during college. My first welded metal piece was an open framework discus thrower about five feet tall made from copper-plated, 5/32" diameter, steel wire. This wire was in a coil about two feet in diameter and had been produced for use in an automatic welding machine. More importantly, it had been donated to the school and was therefore free.

I had thrown the discus while in the apprentice program, which had a full sports curriculum as well as teaching its students how to build ships. This allowed me to use my own posings while constructing the sculpture. I have not been able to locate photos of this first sculpture, so I will try to describe it. The legs and arms were outlined by four pieces of wire running their lengths that I shaped by bending. The torso, if I remember correctly, was done similarly but with perhaps more than four wires. This provided the structural framework of the piece and angles (ankles, knees, elbows, etc.) were tied together and reinforced by shorter pieces (all curved) welded at appropriate angles. The head was a simple ovaloid shape.

With this basic outline, I then used wire to "fill in" between the outline wires, creating an impression of the outer skin of the figure. In doing the fill-in work, I used the smooth radial shape of the coiled wire without bending it wherever I could make it fit the external surface I was trying to simulate by laying the curved wire at an appropriate angle and welding each end to an adjacent outline wire. The sculpture ultimately consisted of maybe a hundred pieces of welded curves that resulted in a lattice-like representation of a discus thrower. It was an A+ effort.

I sold the piece in my first art show following college, a juried show at the Marinerís Museum (annual at the time) in Newport News, Virginia to a local doctor. I donít remember the price, but Iím sure it was considerably less than a hundred dollars, since I had priced everything (three pieces: the discus thrower; a solid-welded, eight-inch figurine of a discus thrower in yellow bronze over steel; and a life-sized, wooden head [after Modigliani] that hung from a chain coming out of the top) to sell. Being poorer than the proverbial church mouse following college and wanting to continue sculpting, I needed the money to buy my own welding equipment and materials.

The technique I developed for the discus thrower served me well in later years, as I returned to the curved-wire, lattice style many times. I did three large works in this style over the next couple of years for which I have no photos. The next one was a rampant horse about four or five feet tall, which I sold to friends (what would we do without them), and a life-sized hammer thrower which was donated to a local hospital for their lobby and the publicity it might bring, but it was never displayed to my knowledge, and I have no idea what happened to it.

During the next few years I made and sold quite a bit of sculpture at local art shows. There were no galleries during this period (1960s) in the Newport News and Norfolk area where I was living, and the strip mall shows and a few shows put on by civic groups were the only local market for selling sculptures. I had a great resource for both materials and inspiration for a while since I had returned from college to work at the shipyard once again and had access to their scrap yard. At the time, employees could go into the extensive scrap yard and pick up anything they saw they wanted, paying for it by the pound, which was how the scrap was ultimately sold to scrap dealers. I made regular visits and bought a lot, since it was so cheap, particularly brass and copper.

Eventually this policy was changed by a new owner of the shipyard, but I learned to love the inspiration that could be found in the industrial negative. That is, in the natural shapes that scrap takes on when the industrial process produces the shape it needs for the product. This could be cutting, punching, or burning scraps from plate or turnings from lathes and milling machines, and it could be of almost any metalósteel, brass, bronze, copper, aluminum, stainless, etc. Impressive wall hangings were a snap using punched or cut brass sheet and steel strips produced when bevel edges were cut in thick steel plate to facilitate production welding. When using these materials, I tried to take advantage of the shapes, textures, and heat discolorations I found in the existing scrap and just concentrated on welding or brazing them together into eye pleasing compositions. I did many free-standing sculptures as well using these materials.

So far, I have turned up no pictures of sculpture produced when I had my gallery (less than a year) with my cousin Jim McDonald in the late 60s. I do not recall that I produced anything in a style that I had not already developed or that I didnít use after that time. Mostly, I was trying to produce things (primarily decorative pieces like copper and cut-nail flowers) that would sell rather than fine works of art. We sold enough to bump along, but not enough to encourage us to set up another gallery when the building we were renting was taken as part of a street straightening project. I was also going out of town for six months on my first consulting project.

When I returned from the project, I continued with my welded sculpture efforts, but I wasnít quite as poor and didnít feel the same pressure to produce pieces that were mostly marketable. I started making more adventurous pieces for my own enjoyment. These sculptures usually had a high labor hour content and couldnít be sold in the local market for anything near what they were usually worth, but I didnít care. I still made decorative pieces to sell in local shows to keep my hobby self-supporting, and I developed several new techniques that were a successful blend of the saleable and the self-fulfilling. These were my fixed-point and free-point kinetic abstracts which I have continued to produce off and on.

The best sculptures of this period were the solid, welded steel pieces I produced. These pieces were mostly made by using short pieces of rod and washers to build a framework shape and then filling in between and over these pieces of metal to form a solid skin of weld-textured steel. When finished, they looked like a casting if you didnít look at the inside. The carbonization of the weld-textured, steel surface using this technique produces a charcoal gray-black color that looks great when sprayed with clear acrylic. I produced a free-standing abstract or two, an exposed-brain head, a half-sized female torso, and much later on, an alien female head using this technique.

In the late 70s, I had moved around so much and had spent so much time traveling for business that I decided I wanted to try to make a modest living at sculpting. I somehow convinced a long-time friend and business partner to take on the job of marketing my stuff for half of the company and went to work out of my garage while living in Gloucester, Virginia. Lots of the pictures on the site are ones taken during this period, but show representative styles developed in previous years as well. Unfortunately, most of these pictures were taken with a Polaroid camera and have degraded significantly in the intervening years. I have fixed them digitally with modern photo software as best I could.

The work, during what turned out to be about a yearís effort, was again decorative in nature. Our goal was to try and market to interior decorators, who seemed to love the stuff, but to do so on any significant scale seemed to require expensively printed brochures that were way outside of our working capital budget. Too bad the internet wasnít up and running in those days, because it would have been easy to get quality photos of the work out to the buying public. We struggled along, but when I got a job offer I couldnít refuse, we gave it up.

Over the next seven or eight years, I didnít have the time or the space to do any sculpture, so I satisfied my creative urge at the work I was doing at the time and by making a few custom knives (which I also consider to be sculptures when their design goes beyond craft--click above to see one). After that I entered a period doing "full time" consulting work, which gave me more time for art, since consulting is the sort of work where you go like crazy for periods of time and then have nothing to do until the next job comes along. It was during this period that I made the alien head mentioned above.

In 1989 I formed a consulting company with three other guys I was working with and we stayed very busy through the 90s. Then came a long period with very little to do and I turned again to sculpture, but this time to a form that I could do with office equipment in an office environment. All I needed was a computer, a laser printer, and a pair of scissors.

I had always been a great admirer of Buckminster Fuller and his various geodesic approaches to structural design. I had also done some geodesic designs of my own for houses that never got constructed, and I even built some models. It occurred to me that I could use both classic solid geometry and geodesic concepts together to design ornaments and party decorations that could be sold as printed kits to the public. These kits would provide the printed patterns on colored card stock, glue, a paper scoring tool, and instructions. The kit builder would supply their own scissors, fully equipping them to construct unusual and decorative ornaments and party or seasonal decorations.

At this time there were only two partners in the consulting company living locally and they willingly joined me in an effort to market these decorative geometrics, primarily on the internet. The geometric designs grew to include designs made of plastic straws as well as paper. Once I had finished the copyright protected designs and instructions for the straw and paper kits (both called GeostellarsTM), I started to develop computer designs for vases, modifications of some of the Geostellar designs as flower blooms, and development of unique paper flower designs. Again, all of these designs could be put together using a pair of scissors, a paper scoring tool, and glue. The vases also required a wooden base disc on the inside for weight and for drilling holes to take wooden dowels used as stems for the paper blooms.

We also sold about thirty of my stainless steel kinetic sculptures on the internet during this period, but finally I just decided I would retire, get a house at the beach, and do only what I wanted each day. This has turned out to be a lot of fishing, writing, and sculpting. Most of the sculpting has been confined to the kinetics and paper, which do not require shop space like welding, but I keep flirting with building some shop space and doing more welded metal while I still can. Only time will tell what sculpture techniques lie in my future, but Iím sure it will include sculpting in some form.

 

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