Old Time Metal Working

I recently finished some Artwork for a restaurant chain here in Houston. I made a giant Crab which is 50″ across the Claws. I used Christmas tree lights to make the eyes light up. The eyes themselves are made from the necks of blue bottle with large marbles glued into the tops so that they resemble the eye stalks that crabs have. I delivered the work to the loading dock at the company warehouse and a crowd assembled as we brought it up to the freight area. Everyone wanted to know how it was made and where I learned to do that. I reflected on how quickly such skills leave our culture, and how I, as a practicing craftsman, am becoming an endangered species.

metal fish artwork by john barberHand-hammered metal working is becoming a novelty in this part of the world. I was introduced to the craft when I was in college, working towards a degree in Art. Oddly enough, I didn’t learn it at school. I was working at a plant that made X-Ray equipment for hospitals. One of my co-workers was a Brazilian immigrant named Marcello. He was about 12 years older than I was, but I was a college kid in a sea of rednecks so we were the odd men out and we frequently ate lunch together. Marcello enjoyed talking about his neighborhood in São Paulo. Down there, all of the tradesmen lived in the same area, the plumbers in one neighborhood, the electricians in another and so on. Marcello’s people were in the auto body trade, working as sheet metal mechanics. They worked on cars and all the work was done by hand using hammers, steel dollies and shot bags. They didn’t use hydraulic machines or electric tools at all. For drilling holes, they used a bit and brace.

Marcello grew up with the trade and learned at his father’s knee. I would go to Marcello’s house sometimes on the weekends and he would show me how to form sheet metal. He took in a bit of auto repair work on the side. It was fascinating to watch him work out a dent or a crease in a fender, just by hitting the metal in a certain pattern. I learned that a steel sheet has a memory, and if you reverse the force which caused the dent, you can smooth the sheet back out to the shape it was in originally. He also showed me how to form a compound curve in a piece of 20-gauge flat sheet, which seemed like magic to me.

Cleaning dinosaurs at HMNS

I eventually finished school and moved to Houston and lost touch with Marcello. But through all the years that I worked in museums, that knowledge lay dormant. When I started making my Wildlife artwork, it was as if all that knowledge came flooding back to me. I realized that the things Marcello had taught me were the foundation of all the work I was making now. If I had not been exposed to the handwork traditions of the Brazilian auto body mechanics, I never would have prevailed in the craft of metal forming. Marcello was proud of his craft and the generations of family tradition that it represented. His knowledge was not of much use in America except to a young art student that he had befriended. Here was a technique that I picked up entirely outside the scope of my formal “schooling” and it became the basis for the art I practice today.

I feel deeply that these handwork traditions should be preserved for the generations to come. I realize that if you want to be an artist in the fast-paced culture that is 21st-Century America, then you are obligated to go through the education component as well as making the art. This is why I teach Basic Welding and demonstrate my hammering technique at the Galveston Art Walk at the Arts on Mechanic Gallery that carries my work. Passing this knowledge along is a pleasure as well as an obligation.