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Behind the Art

Barbara's Inspiration, Methods and Tools

If you already collect Barbara's work, you know that it is innovative and that every piece is one-of-a-kind. If you are curious about where her ideas come from and how her unique sculptures are transformed from imagination to reality, read on....  

"This page explains two of the things people have quizzed me about since I first started creating my work: what inspires me; and, how I do it.  There's much more to answering those questions than I can fit into two columns, but I encourage anyone who is curious to know more to contact me at Whim of Iron.  I enjoy talking with fellow art-lovers, and I'll be happy to share what I can." Barbara McDonald, Sculptor


People often want to know what caused me to choose a particular subject or theme for my sculptures.  I am tempted to answer them somewhat flippantly, bringing to mind an imagined dialogue with my Mom. 

Mom:  Where did you get the idea to do that?

Me:  Out of my head.

Mom:  You must have been.

[We weren’t exactly afficionados of the Marx Brothers, but we were perfectly capable of imitating them for a laugh.]

But, seriously, I’ll try to answer the question. 

First, it probably helps to share my personal belief about what I think is essential to a work of art.  From me, if I can’t provide some original image or insight, I feel I’m just making visual noise and wasting people’s time. Originality is, for me, a holy grail. 

At the same time, I recognize that there is really nothing new under the sun.  In fact, ancient themes may sometimes provide the most effective approach to communicating new ideas. But merely reproducing ancient themes without the injection of life-giving innovation is boring and I see no motivation to pursue that artistic path.

I have come to recognize that the inspiration for a piece may come from any direction, but the recognition of its value as a subject or theme is usually personal to the artist.  Ultimately, the art is in charge and artists tend to follow where it leads. 


For me, the more visual and mental stimulation I receive, the faster the ideas for sculptural pieces come. 

Sitting in the audience at Symphony Hall, letting the lush orchestral music wash over me often causes an idea for a piece to pop into my head, whether, or not it has anything to do with the orchestral piece being played. 

Recognizing a theme from classical literature in the every-day events on the evening news, may also inspire a piece. 

Seeing a shape in the clouds that recalls a mythological creature or story will inspire a piece.  And, along the same lines, the clouds provide an endless gallery of images, from the “real” to the abstract. 

Ultimately, it is the shapes, sounds, colors and movement of the life around us that captures the artist and stirs one's imagination to try to communicate a taste of inspired thought. 

That is as close as I can come to answering the question of my inspiration. Hope it is helpful for you. 


People often want to know where the idea of doing my particular genre of art came from.  The short answer is that it evolved naturally when I was first learning metal fabrication.

Unquestionably, you can do Google searches, or comb galleries and you will not find anyone duplicating my technique.  Although there are other artists who work in steel, I know of no one else who employs the techniques that I use with the materials I use.

First, there is the matter of the steel.  I use a kind of carbon steel that is called “mild steel.”  On rare occasion I have used stainless steel, or some other metal (usually for trim, such as aluminum or copper).  Mild steel comes in different gauges (thicknesses).  I generally restrict myself to a gauge that is light enough so as not to overburden the cradled boards on which I mount the steel.  This is particularly important when layering a complex sculpture, to give it the appropriate presence while insuring that it is not to heavy for hanging on a residential wall. 

However, I can handle sheet steel up to ¼ inch thickness, if appropriate, and I have carved in steel blocks of 2 or three inches to make a heavy decorative weight.  I don’t use, nor recommend using galvanized steel.  It gives off toxic fumes and there’s no good reason to use it to do the work I do. 

My most used and prized piece of equipment is a professional level Plasma Cutter.  I own, and occasionally use, Oxy-acetylene equipment, but almost everything I do works better with the Plasma Cutter. The Plasma Cutter lets me cut, carve, texturize, colorize, and even weld a little (although I do real welding jobs with a MIG welder. 

There are major differences between the Plasma Cutter and Oxy-acetylene torches in how you handle the steel.  One of the most dramatic differences is in the heat generated by the equipment.  Oxy-acetylene torches produce about 4,000 degrees of heat.  The Oxy torch has an adjustable flame, produced by the gas mixture of oxygen and acetylene.  The flame can be used to heat metal to a melting point that lets you cut.  The same torch, with a different tip, will facilitate welding metals. 

However, Oxy-acetylene equipment, at 4,000 degrees, is almost cool when compared to the Plasma Cutter’s almost 30,000 degrees.  The Plasma Cutter’s torch gives off an electronic flame that is boosted with compressed air.  The cut that it can make is far more precise than the Oxy-acetylene cut, if cutting the steel is your goal.  But the Plasma Cutter can also artistcally carve, texturize and bring out the natural colors of steel so much more effectively than Oxy-acetylene equipment. It's like comparing a stick of charcoal to a fine point pen.

Apart from the cutting and welding equipment, my scultpural work also requires a variety of finishing tools: angle grinders, wire brushes, bench grinders, sanders, drills, clamps, etc., etc... I won’t bother to describe these, relatively low tech devices, but, I invite people to contact me directly and I’ll be happy to help.

I turn the steel elements into wall sculpture by mounting them on cradled boards.  The boards are generally made from birch wood, and are finished before the steel goes on.  I use a variety of artistic finishes from brightly painted scenes of distant worlds, to elegant furniture finishes, sometimes embellished with gold leaf, stained glass or textured paints and molding media.  I love to integrate re-claimed objects that I may treat with the plasma torch to get a unusual finish.  So much of the reward of doing my work is the excitement of regularly discovering new things.

The basic sculpture is mounted securely with through-and-through bolts. I may use other mounting techniques for layers, including two-part epoxy for trim pieces.  The end product may be treated with a coat of polyurethane, if I want to maintain the finish, but steel is almost alive.  If I choose, I can allow the steel to realize its destiny by leaving the piece unfinished and letting it change over time as it is exposed to outside influences.  That’s rewarding, too.

As you now know, this genre of art goes beyond traditional painting and sculpture modes into a niche all its own.  If adding a new dimension to your enjoyment of art is something you would like, welcome to my world.

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