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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Art - The New Perennials

Art

The New Perennials

Metal Arts are Blooming

Story and photography by Anna Elkins

 

In springtime, most of us plant our gardens and wait for them to blossom. But some Southern Oregon residents are planting “flowers” that keep their color through all seasons. These residents are artists and their medium is metal.

 

And their metalwork isn’t just found outdoors: it might be on doors—or the very doors themselves. You can find metal gates, staircases, decorative sculpture for home and garden, and yes—flowers. In fact, a public installation of a metal flower sculpture is about to be unveiled soon…but more on that later.

 

Cheryl Garcia

If you drive into Jacksonville on South Stage Road, you may have noticed giant, metal cadmium-colored poppies in the Quail Run Vineyards. These now-iconic flowers are the work of metal artist, Cheryl Garcia.

When I arrive to Cheryl’s house, she greets me with her inviting smile and takes me into her garden. Plants—both natural and metal—are found everywhere. Near a hearty grape vine stands a blue light sculpture with bird cutouts. Under a thick-limbed tree, past pets are commemorated with their own bright, metal markers.

Cheryl leads me into her shop where her sculptures comes to life…a shop so clean it passes “the black glove test.” Everything is organized, and Cheryl knows the location of every tool. When her husband, Criss, borrows one, he puts it right back.

Cheryl is working on a spiral staircase commission, and the treads for the steps are neatly stacked on a table. She says she enjoys private commissions but also loves to have others see her work in public spaces. And the best of both joys will come together in Jacksonville this April with the unveiling of a new, commissioned sculpture for Britt Hill.

Dr. Sean Kevin Roden and Mrs. Sonya Kay Roden have been long-time supporters of arts and artists. Former Southern Oregon residents, the Rodens fell in love with Cheryl’s poppies on South Stage Road.

Sean said of them, “Every day, those poppies raise my spirits.” And so he commissioned some of his own. When Cheryl asked what size, the Rodens answered: “We’re from Texas. Bigger is better.”

The Rodens moved back to Houston, where Sean works for NASA. He told Cheryl, “We’re on your list for the first fritillaria.” When Cheryl asked what size, they repeated: “We’re from Texas. Bigger is better.”

The fritillaria gentneri is a rare lily cluster of nodding red blossoms flecked with yellow, and Southern Oregon happens to be one of the few places in the world it blooms. In April, you can find it in the Jacksonville Woodlands behind the Britt Gardens, so it’s a fitting time to unveil a sculpture that honors the flowers and the Brit Hill where they will be “planted.”

Cheryl sits down at her shop desk and pulls out a sketch. A happy gathering of the bell-shaped fritillaria practically dance off the page. I imagine them in the Britt gardens. The sculpture’s name? “Brittillaria,” says Cheryl. She adds: “They will be my artistic interpretations of fritillaria. 

She has been assembling the fritillarias like she did the poppies: on their side because they are taller than the height of her shop. There will be seven flowers of varying heights, forming a 12-foot-tall cluster. The grouping of sculptures will be viewable by the public after the April announcement of the Britt Festival 2015 season.

Cheryl will also make smaller sculptures—maquettes—to fundraise for Britt. She says of them: “They increase people’s memory of Jacksonville and its history.”

Until now, the only people who have known about the sculpture are Britt’s director Donna Briggs, the Rodens, Cheryl and Criss...and the Avett Brothers. “They promised not to tell,” Cheryl smiles as she explains that she and Criss got to meet the musicians backstage after the group’s performance at Britt last summer.

Criss says of his wife’s art: “Any great work will interact with the environment and the viewer.” Cheryl’s sculptures do just that; they capture nature and the human context around them—storytelling in metal.

Such storytelling involves cutting out designs from raw steel, sandblasting them, then applying hard enamel, anodized front colors, special patinas, and oil finishes.

Cheryl has been metalworking for 22 years, “But it’s been brewing in me my entire life,” she says. Her grandfather was a welding instructor in a vocational school and a machinist in the Navy. But Cheryl didn’t learn that until she had already become a certified welder. “I just thought he was a huge collector of metal junk.”

Cheryl grew up near Durango, Colorado and played in the Red Rock canyons. She used to spend days exploring abandoned historic dumps and began gathering metal scraps at age eight, around the time her family took a road trip. As she and her siblings watched the Bonneville Salt Flats through their car window, Cheryl’s attention was captured by a huge sculpture—as tall as a tree with big spheres: “The Tree of Utah,” by Swedish artist, Karl Moman. She remembers, “Seeing that work of art struck a deep chord in me. I knew I wanted to create the same feeling I was feeling for other people.”

No small feat, considering that metalworking is such a male-dominated industry. Of her training, Cheryl says, “I was the only woman in classes of machinists, diesel mechanics, and welders. On the first day of vocational metalworking school, I thought the fashion was awful.” With a spark in her eye, she adds, “But now I like my boots.” Getting hired as a woman metalworker was hard 18 to 19 years ago. Cheryl says, “Every shop I worked in, I was the only woman.” But things are changing, she notes. “There are more women in the industry today than when I started.”

Cheryl is not just able to weld together pieces of metal and create something beautiful and enriching; she also brings people together through art. Her “Brittillaria” will be another such community connector: flowers that will never wilt, created by an artist who is as tough and bright as the work she creates.

Before I leave, Cheryl says, “I love playing with fire. When others come over and experience it for the first time, it renews my excitement in what I do. It’s like the fourth of July every day of my life. It’s constantly sparkly.”

Cheryl Garcia

Great Metal Works

(541) 840-6243

www.GreatMetalWorks.com

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Many artists are creating metalwork in our region. Here are a few more to look for

Dennis DeBey

At the heart of metalwork is blacksmithing. To find out a bit more about the process, I visit Southern Oregon’s premier blacksmith, Dennis DeBey of Ashland Forge. Dennis has been working as a blacksmith for 40 years. Step into his forge, and you feel like you’ve stepped back a millennium. Indeed, many of the tools Dennis uses haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages.

He works on commission and also shares his knowledge. “I am 67 and I can’t do this forever,” Dennis says. “So I’m teaching. I gain the most from teaching.” He’s helped students with senior projects and gives school tours. And he encourages girls to get into blacksmithing. When charter schools come to visit, he usually asks the smallest girl in the class if she thinks she can bend a long stick of steel. No one thinks she can, including herself. So Dennis places the steel in the fire until it’s orange-hot in the middle. He holds one end and tells the girl to take the other and walk at an angle toward him. The steel bends into a “U” shape. Everyone is amazed—including the girl who bent the seemingly immutable steel. “What we think is hard is really pliable,” Dennis says.

When he talks about metalworking, he emphasizes: “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s where you hit and how. It’s finesse.” He adds, “If you beat something up, it will just look beat up.”

Dennis got his start with a blacksmithing class at night school during the Carter administration. He says, “Everyone was going back to the land, so I started out making wood-burning stoves out of recycled parts.” He still likes to slow down the use of new metals and has a sprawling junkyard behind his forge, filled with everything from rusted bicycle spokes to old salon hair driers.

In his shop, we walk past a statue I recognize: one of the Ashland Independent Film Festival awards. Dennis created the concept for the small sculpture and has been making the statues for nine years 

While rummaging through tools, Dennis says, “The qualification for this job is the ability to understand what people want. It’s about communication.” As is his work: it communicates strength and beauty. He says, “I put art into anything I do.”

He pulls out a kind of awl, at the end of which is a tiny heart. “It’s my maker’s mark, my signature,” He says. “I only put it on work I like.”

There is plenty of heart to be found on and in the work Dennis has forged.

Dennis DeBey

Ashland Forge

(541) 482-9568

www.ashlandforge.com

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Diane & Les Rasmussen

What do a cowbell, a fire extinguisher wall mount, and the foot of an old stove have in common? They are welded together by Diane Rasmussen into an imaginative sculpture of a horse.

Diane and her husband, Les, create whimsical metal art sculptures for home and garden. Diane started as a fiber artist and Les as a welder. Together they owned D & L Custom Iron Works. The magical metal sculptures were a natural byproduct of their gifts.

For each piece, Diane likes to incorporate the sources of scrap metal that form it into its name and story. Every sculpture becomes a character with a personality and a favorite cocktail: like the flying pigs who enjoy parasailing and strawberry margaritas. 

Diane says, “If I can get a smile out of people, that’s what I love.”

That horse sculpture mentioned at the beginning? He also has railroad spike tops, and so he became a retired railroad engineer.

And there is Sloan, the ladies’ man at the ready with a can opener. Four of his “girlfriends” have left him—each getting sold off. Diane shakes her head at Fifi, his current girlfriend. “She’ll probably leave him on Thursday.” Thursday is the weekly Rogue Valley Grower’s and Crafters Market in Medford, where Diane and Les haul their considerable inventory of metal pieces each week. 

Of her salvaged materials, Diane says, “I love creating things out of stuff people throw away.” And so she and Les frequent garage sales and salvage yards. The results: characters like “Fryer Tuck”—a bird made out of frying pans. Or the spring chicken: a chicken mounted to a spring that bounces when you poke at it 

Diane starts the process for most pieces by creating a design by hand, scanning it, vectorizing it on the computer, and then entering that data into her cutting machine—a large table under which is piled a few months’ worth of scrap metal (that the Rasmussens haul off to be recycled). Les finishes the pieces by giving them a patina and then coating them with a protective powder that is then baked in a special oven.

The couple creates a wide range of art—from one-of-a-kind salvage sculptures, to subtractive pieces cut with a plasma torch, to custom signage. They also create commissions for customers—10 to 15 a week. In fact, about 75 percent of their designs are inspired by customer requests. The work is hard and the market is variable.

Les says, “It’s a funny business. It’s fun, though.” 

Diane and Les Rasmusson 

Steel My Art

(541) 261-5916

www.steelmyart.etsy.com

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