Friday, September 2, 2011

An Interpretive Dance to Vermont - Part D - The Circus

I will never look at metal in the same way. Two days in a welding shop changed me - a pile of discarded metal in the back of a pick-up truck at the dump has an allure to me. While sitting at a red light the other day, I glanced over at a building under construction, and there, on the roof, was a man in a welding mask applying a bead to a beam - I got so excited watching him work I missed the light change and the driver behind me layed on the horn. My hostess J. took me to MASSMoCa two days after our class, and we both went a little gaga over the giant steel girder that acts as their front desk - it's enormous, and the beads of weld on it were fatter thatn our fingers, we appreciated how difficult it was to make that thing. I think back to Dock Yards in Bermuda, and now I want to go back there and examine the weld work. In other words, I'm hooked.
Gary, our welding instructor at SAW, turned us loose on the afternoon of our welding class, to scavenge the scrap metal pile. My classmates and I dove into the pile of discarded pieces - one man's junk is another man's gold. There were old signs, rods, cogs, wheels, saw blades, car parts, coils, and what I wanted most, some plain flat sheets to cut figures out with the plasma cutter. We climbed all over that pile turning it over and wrestling out material for our projects, helping each other find the right pieces of magic.

"What are you going to make?" I looked up from my hoard of scrap metal to see Sam, the tall bright intern girl standing over me in her heavy duty Carhart's, a cigarette in her hand, a modern hip version of Rosie the Riveter. Gary was helping J. with her bookshelf concept,  and everyone was a flutter with their ideas. I had come all the way from North Carolina with a very clear idea of what I wanted to make, but I wasn't so sure now, I wasn't sure if I was tough enough to see it through. Sam changed all that for me. "I want to make a wall hanging - I make collages of paper, and I want to make a collage of metal."
"Cool. You have some good materials there - what will it be?"
"Well, I want to make a circus scene, with horses and riders, kind of like Toulouse Lautrec's circus drawings? Do you know them? Of course I'm not Toulouse, but he's my inspiration."
"Oh! This will be great, you can make it like a Pop Up Book." and when Sam said this, I was filled with hope, and childlike glee really, I mean, I was giddy.
I spent that afternoon drawing my horses and silly circus ladies with tutus on my sheet metal. I had found this wonderful coil that I planned to cut into sections to make the horses tails and the ladies' head dresses with. I'd found an old burnished sign for my base and even a diorama like stage. I practiced cutting with the plasma cutter all morning. The day ended and J. and I were ready to go home and have a cocktail. I was still slightly unsure that I could put the whole thing together in the time we had, but Sam was my cheerleader. And I was so impressed with the story she told me of her goal for the summer - she was interning at SAW and building a glass furnace. What a girl! J. and I made a great dinner that night and I retired for the evening with rusty circus ponies dancing in my head.
"What have you got going on here?" It was Gary. I had spent the morning cutting my horses and tutu clad ladies, my rods to set them on were ground and measured, my coil was now in happy pieces ready to become horse tails and head ornaments. I had everything laid out on the concrete floor of the workshop and was planning my welding strategy with Sam. I was embarrassed by Gary's question, I was sure he would think my plan was silly, "Um, it's going to be a circus, a wall hanging - in Sam's words, like a pop-up book." I bit my lip and looked up at him and waited for his advice.
"Oh! This is marvelous! Have you ever seen Alexander Calder's wire circus?"
"I know Calder, yes, but I don't think I know about his circus."
"He made it late in his life. Wait, we have a book, let me go get it for you!" Gary dashed off and returned with a wonderful book of photographs of Calder at his home and studion. We poured over the book and found the wire circus photos at the end. They are wonderful bent wire figure, like a children's circus toyset. Animals and acrobats on a high wire, a man swings on a trapeze. Gary was really excited about my project and instructed Sam that this would take very delicate torch work, with brass flox - I would use the MIG for the stage and the background piece, but the rest was light welding, and I was so pleased, because this was what I was made for, I had found my niche in the welding shop. The rest of the place was humming with grinders and the ZWIP crackle of the MIG. SAW visitors strolled by the shop and looked in as all of us worked and J. and I joked that the tourists must have thought we were real artists, we were so cool, so impressive looking in our heavy jeans and boots and welding shields. By midday, I was feeling almost competent, but Sam was with me every step of the way, I couldn't have done it without her.
By 4:30 the workshop was filled with everyone's fabulous projects. We were all quite pleased with ourselves and I think Gary was surprised that such a bunch of ragtag beginners could get so much done in a couple of days. There was the husband-wife team who made a 7 foot garden bird - a stork of incredible stature with a set of skate blades welded back to back for his handsome head, the Prodigy made a heavy abstract that was a miniature Henry Moore for sure, the grandfather-grandson team from New Hampshire made a fantastic wheel with their street address and name and the grandson had narrowly escaped a frightening tussle with a grinder earlier in the day while polishing his apocolyptic abstract, J. got the prize for most prolific with two bookshelves completed, and several garden ornaments, including The Hook - a sublime piece really, a 4 foot arched rod welded to a heavy cog as it's base, and then playfully, a small found hook, something from her father's barn, a utilitarian and sturdy thing, welded to the head of the rod - only small things would be able to hang from it, and this was the genius of The Hook - all that metal, for such an absurd purpose made it the best piece created that day, I think. There was the crazy mobile made by the Lady Who Lived Just Down the Street who shared cucumber salad with us at lunch. And then there was my Circus - it's just what I hoped to make, only much much better. It elicited joy from my classmates - it was a surprise, a silly surprise. Best of all when I brought it home, my husband liked it - and my good friend Lee who is an artist, a big man, and a carpenter, and the one whose approval of my metal work I most sought, exclaimed when seeing The Circus, "Oh Honey! It's Wonderful! It's Whimsical! I'm Jealous!" Lee and I are planning the purchase of torches now. I must weld again, there is just too much metal out there, waiting for me.

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