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The Magic of Steel in Metal Arts

Consider for a moment. In your life-time you have surely seen beautiful and striking artistic expressions in gold, silver, platinum, copper, zinc, brass, bronze, titanium, aluminum, iron, etc., and, in my favorite, steel.

In ancient times, as in the present, metal arts carried a special attraction. Maybe it arises from the sense of strength and permanence inherent in hard metal.

In ancient Greek mythology, Hephaestus, a son of Zeus and Hera, was a metal worker. He is said to have fashioned, among other wonderful things, a servant made of metal [robots anyone?]. Today, he is known as the god/patron of metal workers, blacksmiths, metallurgists, etc. Although he was reportedly ugly in appearance, he married the Goddess of love, Aphrodite. [Surely there’s a lesson here, someplace.] I don’t doubt that he would have loved modern technological equipment, although his forge was said to be the volcano under Mount Etna.

Often, the ancient artisans combined an aesthetic sense with the practical. How beautiful are the ancient swords produced in Damascus steel, with their elaborate grips, their high quality hardness and their legendary jeweled embellishments. Swords like Excalibur carried a mystique of their own, taking on, in legend, attributes that one would not, normally, associated with steel. These days, the ancient attributes of steel are greatly enhanced due to modern technology. Finishes and patinas (such as anodizing and electro-plating) are available that were not available to the ancients. But, steel, for all its modernization, retains a colorful life and mystique of its own.

A wise person I knew once told me: “The evidence of life is growth; the evidence of growth is change.” For all of its sense of permanence, steel “lives” and manifests its life in change. This attribute informs much of the work I do. There are induced changes, such as those produced by the carving and texturizing that can be achieved with the plasma torch. And there are changes that are part of the inherently magical life of steel.

An art collector will note that some of my pieces may change over time. Changes can be retarded with coating, and I have a number of relatively recent pieces that I don’t expect to change for years, if ever. However, in the normal life of steel, there are some inherent phenomena that are nothing short of magical. Observe the behavior of steel when heat is applied. The material produces beautiful colors and the magic is that the beautiful blue green will be balanced out by a perfect complimentary peachy orange, usually right next to each other. Colors can be removed by different methods, but does it really make sense to dull such magic by grinding it off? I think this evidence of the life of steel is a large part of the allure of the material.

Sometimes, preserving a stable state in the steel is more desirable than letting it metamorphose. Its “life,” in that case, will manifest in the composition and shapes and colors that can be captured by a preservative coating.

Steel is not, of course, the only metal used in art. In the Americas, gold was so plentiful to the Inca Indians that fabulous art works were created out of that, historically, most precious of metals. To this day, gold is synonymous with the most beautiful in art and jewelry. It is soft, malleable, and easily beaten, worked, or cast into aesthetic forms. Copper, brass and bronze are also often used to produce art. These metals are softer than steel, more malleable, and the warm color is attractive in many settings.

So why steel for me? I can’t deny the challenge of working with such a hard material is part of the allure. But until relatively recent times, producing the sorts of artistic work that are now possible with steel would have been impossible. What do we have now that makes it possible? We have a new generation of torches that exceed anything previously available, including the plasma torch, my carving tool and my “brush” of choice.

A note about plasma: Simply put, plasma is described as the 4th state of matter (along with solid, liquid, and gas). An example often given is that if solid water (ice) is heated it will turn to liquid. If liquid water is heated it will become a gas (steam). If a great deal more heat is added to a gas, it will become the 4th state of matter, plasma. Hence the plasma torch, which has dramatically expanded the ability to cut and carve metals.

Consider this: When movies show bank robbers breaking into a vault, they usually show a gang of thieves, the star of which is the torch-wielding expert [in years past he would have been the equivalent of the computer nerd but with more physically dangerous equipment. This torch-wielding expert labors alone He wears special eye-protection, gloves, etc., and holds the torch, itself (which has a 4000 degree, lethal open flame) while all sorts of other action is occurring, as he breaks through the tough skin of the vault. In these movies, the equipment used is an oxy-acetylene torch which is traditionally used either for welding, or for cutting. It is a disciplined mixture of oxygen and acetylene that produces enough heat to pierce the tough metal (usually steel) of the vault.

Oxy-acetylene is still used in welding and cutting, but there is now a new gun in town. Around 1941, as part of the war effort, a new method of welding was developed. The new process TIG [Tungsten Inert Gas] solved many problems for aircraft manufacturers and others needing to fuse metals together neatly and effectively. In the 1950’s experiments in the refinement of the TIG process revealed that, by reducing the size of the nozzle opening, the TIG process could also be used for cutting. The Plasma torch was born! In contrast to the 4000 degree heat produced by the oxy-acetylene equipment, the Plasma cutter produces up to 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit. We now have a torch that can produce crisp, precise cuts and, when needed can “gouge” and carve patterns in the steel. What a find!

Given its industrial history, the plasma torch is normally used in machine shops and fabrication businesses to produce utilitarian items. Today, plasma cutting, guided by computer technology, makes mass production of kitchen appliances, airplane parts, etc. routine. No wonder the artistic applications of a plasma cutter have been largely overlooked throughout the world.

The wonderful possibilities of producing art with the free-handed use of a plasma torch are only beginning to be seen. I feel blessed to have found this remarkable medium of artistic expression. The possibilities for creating art by applying extreme heat to steel are infinite and I expect that time will produce many more plasma torch wielding artists.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was exhibiting at the Cove Gallery in Laguna Beach, California. I hope it strikes a chord with you, readers. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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