Besides the primal draw of something shiny, metal has an even deeper appeal ... one that all metal artists understand, whether they make jewelry or fireplace tools. Also, there is something about metal — even beyond its allure when shaped into a cherished necklace or gold bracelet — that has a magnetic affect on all people.
“People are attracted to metalwork because it can last well over a lifetime,” points out Kathleen Gatliffe, president of the Colorado Metalsmithing Association (CoMA). “Think about your wedding ring, the bronze sculpture you walk past every day on your way to work, the silver you inherited from your grandfather that you plan to pass on to your grandchildren ... these are metal objects with profound personal significance.”
A long-time member of CoMA, local jeweler Dan Telleen, of Karats of Vail, is hosting a show Saturday and Sunday highlighting CoMA artists’ unique array of metal masterpieces. The show is also a kickoff to the Karats tent at the Vail Farmer’s Market, which will feature two CoMA metal artists every Sunday throughout the summer.
“The pair of artists at the farmers market tent is a mentoring situation. We usually have a more seasoned metal worker with a young up-and-comer,” Telleen said. “The scope of work is amazing. Of course we have jewelers but we also have blacksmiths.”
Whether it’s a bronze statue or a tiny silver earring, there are hundreds of techniques used in metal work, some involving state-of-the-art machines and some involving similar tools used by cavemen. As an organization, CoMA provides its members with the opportunity to share and discuss their many approaches to metal.
“I’ve had my tools for 40 years,” said artist Sharon Schaffner, whose many masterpieces include a series of jewelry pendants featuring faces that change depending on the characteristics of people she has seen while traveling the world.
“I still work mostly in sterling silver and stick with what I know — piercing, cutting, soldering and manipulating the metals. CoMA has been wonderful for sharing if you have a new technique or work with a bad batch of metal. There is always something to learn and something to share. The jewelers in the past were not like that. They would always worry that someone would take their technique and steal their ideas.”
‘Metal is magic’
CoMA artists have no need to steal ideas because they are overflowing with their own. Take the organization’s founder, Ira Sherman, for example. Although he pays his bills by creating and selling intricate platinum earrings, bracelets and necklaces, the Denver artist also builds kinetic sculptures — enormous pieces of metal that move and serve a symbolic function. His “Pavlovian Trainer,” for example, is a headpiece made primarily from steel and brass that is intended to “stimulate good behavior” and prevent its wearer from talking excessively. Sherman also creates metal architecture. One of his most famous pieces is “The Stang Machine,” a huge stainless steel structure with rotating discs located on a platform of the Denver Light Rail. It is Sherman’s keen interest in all creative metal pursuits that steered him into co-founding CoMA.
“I’m kind of like the all-around person,” Sherman said. “Every aspect of metalsmithing interests me. There are so many different things to learn, so many amazing techniques. For me, metal is the magic. It’s strong, it’s shiny. You can use it to make something mechanical very easily.”
However, working in metal is not easy. Sherman mentions techniques that not only require utmost scrutiny and steady hands, but also a healthy measure of physical strength and chemistry knowledge. Granulation, for instance, fuses round balls of metal to a base metal using a copper surface which, when heated, alloys to the metal below it. There is forging — a technique dating back hundreds of years — and also welding, a large portion of which is now done by laser.
“Metalwork takes tremendous skill,” Gatliffe said. “Most metalsmiths produce work that is useful and so the art must be both beautiful and functional.”
Although metalsmiths typically possess the artistic skill to be successful in any other medium, the challenge and variety of metal keeps them dedicated.
“Some metal is easy to manipulate, some isn’t. Some has a mind of its own. Every artist zeroes in on what takes for them. It was metals for me,” Schaffner said. “I knew wood would be difficult because of the dust. I’ve never been attracted to marble. Plastics are just a mess. Metals are cleaner to work in. It’s just something I went for and perfected and had great gratification in.”
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer. She was contracted by Karats to write this story.