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Sculpture: Doing and Appreciating

abstract:I am taking a weeklong intensive sculpture course from Ian Rhodes at Emily Carr University this week. The group of 12 are into the fourth of five jam-packed days. At this point we've become familiar with several ways to: blow yourself up, set yourself on fire and and get a serious sunburn. It's like your mother in your head saying "Stop! You'll poke your eye out!" when running with scissors. Once you get over the drama of the potential for harm, you can then begin to feel familiar, and for some, reasonably facile at welding with acetylene torches, plasma cutters and MIG (metal inert gas) machines.

Like any art class I've ever taken, it never ceases to amaze me the diversity of backgrounds and creative thought people bring as adult learners. There is none of the self-concsious intimidations of youth. People have lived lives; have years of work experience; traveled and formed opinions on art, philosophy and they come at things with a sense of purpose. For some it's an escape. For others it's the chance to transfer designs and skills from another medium: the architect from Iran, the woodmaker from Gabriola Island, the commercial designer escaping his laptop.

The class is divided between what I'd call representative artists and modernists, and then again by those who prefer delicate work and those who make use of the big shop machines: the benders, cutters, grinders and band saws. One guy is refashioning heavy gauge rusted used construction pipe into a shiny, new Bauhausian bike rack. He also made an incredibly functional BBQ from scrap. Big material equals big machinery that makes big noise, so there is a correlation between noise and scale. Others have squirreled themselves away in a corner of the shop and work independently measuring, sketching, scheming and assembling.


June 09, 2012
— I've self-discovered a penchant for the abstract. One piece I'm making uses 20 gauge steel sheet cut into 2" and 3" strips which are bent into spiral loops and pulled into various coils. I will be fusing lines of poetry onto the loops. On another piece I cut 30 feet of 1/8 mm steel rod into random lengths and bent all the pieces into a variety of compound angles. These were spot welded randomly into two ephemeral "clouds" which I are attached to a two-angle bent flat support bar with a welded peg all mounted on a plinth made out of a square column of gorgeously figured cherry wood. My final piece is going to kill me:

While the first two pieces are studies in abstract sculpture, I am drawn to minimalist shapes in large pieces. One way to explore angled shapes before committing to metal is to use paper or card stock to fashion a model. I've found a book of templates or "nets" used by box designers who work from a flat 2D piece of paper that they cut a shape to represent the joined sides, top and bottom of a 3D shape and then bend, fold and glue it to form a cube, a pyramid, a cone, a sphere or a rhomboid container. It's a bit of a geometry puzzle with an origami twist. In this case, I'm going to create an bilateral indented box-shape out of 16 gauge steel plate at ten times the net dimensions.

The metal process requires precision measurements and cutting. I've got 8 equilateral triangles and 3 diamonds all with 60 degree angle corners that join together. The cut pieces are leaned into place and held together with huge magnets before being spot welded on the inside. Once the 3 diamonds are bent consecutively to 150 degrees to form the squeezed-in part of the shape, all the straight seems are MIG welded and the welds are grinded to flat (read HOURS of industrial sanding devices). When smooth, any imperfections are rewelded with filler and then the whole piece gets polished again. Depending on whether the piece will live its life outdoors or remain dry inside determines whether it gets a coat of clear varnish. There are a myriad of treatments you can brush onto steel to cause it to rust, blacken, go brown or green, so a bit of alchemy is required. Then of course there is the brilliant shine of 400 gauge sanding paper polished smooth.

At the end of the course I am no longer intimidated by large sheets of heavy gauge steel or the machinery to work it. Respect, yes. And the sense of accomplishment when you see your finished piece welded, polished and standing in the hallway is quite wonderful. This is a substantial thing - no denying. Most particularly because of the shared experience and collaboration. It's hard to imagine ever doing work of this size alone.

If you know nothing about sculpture, it helps to have a didactic slide show by a professor who has visited installed works and photographed them at the angles not typically depicted in art books or museum catalogues. Here are a few of the books of artists who appeal to me:

  • Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective
  • David Smith: Sculpture and Drawings
  • Anthony Caro: Sculpture Towards Architecture
  • Anthony Caro-5 Volume Boxed Set: The Definitive Series on the Sculpture of Anthony Caro


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