Monday, November 10, 2008

The Red Fly Flyer

Click on any image to see enlarged versions.

I am sure most of my readers have never bothered to wonder what would have happened had insects been cross bred with First World War airplanes.

You haven't??!! Well, don't worry, I have already done so and here is the result.

These are definitely guy kinda sculptures. Most little boys built model airplanes.

When I was a kid, I built dozens of them, hanging them with stout piano wire from the ceiling of my bedroom forming a gigantic aerial dogfight. I would borrow my dad's Zippo cigarette lighter (everybody's dad seemed to smoke in those days) and burn part of the model, glue orange and yellow cotton on the model and hang it at a steep angle. I had virtually memorized Quentin Reynolds' history of WWI fighter combat, THEY FOUGHT FOR THE SKIES. I saved up the enormous sum (for 1963) of $25 and ordered a thick British book with photos and specifications of every (and I do mean every) experimental and standard German airplane built from 1914 through 1918. Many of them look, to the modern eye, more contraption than machine.

One of the early spurs to my becoming a sculptor was I quickly tired of building only the limited types of model airplanes commercially produced and tried to add some more of my own.

Fast forward 45 to 48 years and I'm still a 12 year old, but now I'm trapped in a middle aged guy's body. The upside to that from a 12 year old's point of view is I can eat candy bars whenever I want, and I have a metal shop to make any airplane model I want. AND, I can make them any size and hang them nearly anywhere (Joy would probably even let me hang one or two in the bedroom, but I would have to do a lot of extra yard work.)

It is safer to place them on steel poles or hang them from thick branches in the garden. Besides, that gives me full range to create whatever tableau I want.

In the mid 1990s, when I had a large studio downtown and sold to about 100 galleries across the country, I did a series of fantastical flying machines, but the design was constrained by the need to produce pieces at a reasonable wholesale price AND that could be small enough to take apart and ship in a cardboard box.

Now that I am arguably richer--or I just don't care any more about being broke--I am making a new series of "WHAT IF BUGS HAD BEEN CROSSBRED WITH WORLD WAR ONE AIRPLANES???!!!" They will all be different and all as simple or fantastically complicated and improbable as I want to make them.

They are, of course, flown by "army ants."

A great present for the grown up 12 year old boy in your life -- or even a modern day pilot.

Each "plane" is unique. First, a special caterpillar is bred and allowed to cocoon and develop; when hatched, it is fitted out with wheels and a radial 8 cylinder organic engine and two Spandau synchronized machine guns made of old spark plugs. Note there are no rudders or flaps, since the bug flyer can twist its thorax and body to guide itself.
The wingspan is 45 inches ( 112 cm) and the length is 38 inches (about 100 cm)

This flyer is $725.

My "Army Ant" pilot is made of plumber's epoxy putty with welding wire antennae. I am pleased she/he/it came out so well in a sort of 1930s "Amazing Stories" front cover style.

Below, through the magic of PhotoShop, I caught this photo of the Bug Flyer skimming over the pond in our back garden.

Diving out of the sun!!!!!!

BLAM!!!! BLAM!!!! BLAM!!!! BLAM!!!!

If you want to see even more photos of the Red Fly Flyer in even larger size, check out my Flickr set at

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Toaster Mutt

Or maybe I should call her a "Toastweiller." Anyway, face it, you've ignored hints from your beloved over the years to buy them a dog or a toaster. Now you can get credit for two in one present. The expression on the mutt's face can be changed by rotating the eyebrows. Incredibly, I believe it still toasts--though I am sure the warranty has expired and the UL safety guarantee is void. At first, I was going to photograph it on a white background like I do a lot of my small sculptures, then I realized she would look most natural in the kitchen, so I photographed her on our kitchen counter. When not munching toast, the double ended wrench serves as a bone.
Presuming you've already bought them a toaster, here is the link to my web page of other metal dogs.

Sure she's not pure bred, but how many dogs yelp "badiing!" In stead of "bow wow?" And how many burn your toast instead of chewing your shoes?

The feet and ears are stainless steel spoons, the tail is an egg beater. The eyes are washers and sheet metal screws with cut nails for eyebrows. The nose is the handle to pull down and start the toaster, the mouth, the dial to set how dark to cook the toast. The side is labeled "Mary Proctor." probably made by Proctor-Silex Company. I doubt "Mary Proctor" designed or built this. I, on the other hand, have signed my name on the bottom.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


My new wall sculpture, "Liberation," was installed at Glen Aire Presbyterian Retirement Home in Cary, NC Friday.
It's cut in 19 gauge steel and painted with white enamel. The piece measures 6 ft 6 inches wide ( 1.95 meter) by approximately 4 ft high (1.20 meter). The steel lines coming bending out from the all, represent latitudinal lines such as found on a globe or map. The lines project out about 1 ft from the wall (30 cm) (click on photo to see enlargement)
The color of the piece is actually a vivid white, but the peculiar blue gray wall covering behind the piece seems to have confused my camera a great deal.
The woman in the sculpture is dissolving into the many birds, boats, stars, leaving the retirement home in spirit and dreams if not in her body.
One of the pleasures of doing commissioned art work is telling people's stories. By that I mean I always ask a potential client what they want a piece to do or say about them. For me, a commissioned piece of art work is a person asking me to tell the emotional essence of one of their favorite stories. Sometimes, I don't know the whole story myself until the piece is finished and the client sees it.
That was certainly the case here.
I have known Mr. Davis (not his real name) nearly my entire life. He was simply one of the members of the constellations of adults a child vaguely senses around him and deals with. In this case, Mr. Davis was one of the men at our Presbyterian church when I was growing up. He was Alex and Mary's dad, and sometimes he was an usher at the 11 AM service and his wife was the church secretary and he served on the church boy scouts troop committee along with my father.
I was surprised to hear from him late last year. He called me up out of the blue telling me he wanted to commission a sculpture for a new area being built in the retirement community where he had moved some years before. He could not articulate why he wanted to commission a sculpture. Pressed, he said he had seen a sculpture in a doctor's office that had moved him and he wanted one like that. I explained I had no interest in copying another artist's work and was pretty sure the copyright laws were against it, too. But, this was so out of character for Mr. Davis I was intrigued. What had moved him so much about the sculpture he had seen? I asked him to think about what he wanted this sculpture to say? When he could tell me that, I said, we could start to talk.
I met him and his daughter, Mary, several weeks later at the retirement home. I was surprised to find, Betty, his wife, was suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's--"we moved here years ago after Betty was diagnosed," Mr. Davis explained. He had seen the sculpture that moved him on one of the numerous trips to a doctor's office whenever he took his wife for treatment.
"Daddy has taken what you said about considering what this means very seriously," Mary told me. "He's called everybody in the family and everybody has told him it's his project and nobody can tell but him."
"So what's this sculpture to be about?" I asked Mr. Davis.
"I think it's about liberation," he said. I was surprised at how his voice quavered, how emotional he seemed. Men of my father's generation, WWII vets, never showed that.
I did not want to risk embarrassing him by probing further. "I can work with that theme," I assured him, and steered the discussion into safer waters such as costs, schedules, and contracts, all familiar territory to Mr. Davis, a man who'd spent his career as a purchasing accountant for a large manufacturing plant.
Over the next several months, I had several frustrating false starts on some designs I was not happy with and the new building in which this was to be installed was delayed. Finally, I came up with a design I presented to Mr. Davis and his daughter.
I worked from a comment my own grandfather made to me when he was 80 and I was in my early 20s. "Joel, I don't think or feel much different than you do, I just don't get around as fast."
I added to that, the fact that the average age of residents at this retirement community is 82 and that three fourths of them are women.
From those ideas, I designed a figure of a young woman dissolving into birds, boats, stars, all symbols of freely going one's own way or direction in the universe. I designed steel rods, much like latitude and longitude lines on a globe or map to come out and surround the figure, they also provide support for the various figures of birds and boats cut from the figure of the woman.
Mr. Davis had one other request about the design when he saw the full sized paper model, could there be a small plaque to one side giving the title of the piece, my name, the date, and --he was quite specific about this, in much smaller letters, "A gift of Robert and Betty Davis."
Well, I finally got the piece finished and the retirement community got their building done. Friday, I went out there to install the piece. Several of the staff were on hand to help as well as Mr. Davis. When they saw the sculpture had been designed to be light weight and in pieces, Mr. Davis volunteered to help put it up and sent the staffers on their way.
When we were nearly finished, I was sorting and putting away extra screws and drill bits. Mr. Davis was staring at the sculpture and commented, "There's nothing else like it here. I'm sure Betty would be pleased."
Just to pass the time, I asked him where and when he and Betty had met. That's when I got the real story of the "Liberation" sculpture.
"We met in the fall of 1943 in the most exciting city in the world for young people in wartime-- San Francisco." I was struck by this just-the-facts-business man's sudden turn of poetic phrase.
"I'd just graduated from college and was newly commissioned in the US Navy as an ensign. I was sent to San Francisco to meet my ship. When I arrived, the harbor master told me it would not be in port for months--- I would have to apply for some temporary assignment until it arrived. Assigned a 5PM to 3 AM shift in a downtown office building proof reading code book revisions, I soon noticed a very pretty WAV worked the day shift on a different floor. Given our schedules and locations, I had little hope of getting to know her. Her supervisor, an ensign in the WAVs, had taken an, ahem, "personal" interest in me, though, and she arranged to have me transferred to her department and shift. She had no idea Betty was in the picture for me. It wasn't long before Betty and I were an item and we knew we were meant to be. I left San Francisco in March of 1944, an officer on a freighter carrying 8500 tons of high octane aviation gas bound for the South Pacific. The ship returned to San Francisco in May, 1945 and we became engaged the following month on her birthday. When the ship put to sea again, Betty and I planned to be married when the ship returned to San Francisco.
We were at sea 19 months, saw a lot of boredom and a bit of combat, including three landings. Betty and I wrote the whole time. I still have all our letters. Maybe our kids will be interested in them some day. They don't have any literary value, just an account of two young people in love and lot of boring information about life on board my ship.
Anyway, I got a letter from Betty one day saying she was so excited I would be coming home soon. Surface mail to my APO address had been cut off some weeks before and she was sending this letter via air mail on the last day allowed for my address. That must mean our ship was coming back. The same day I got that letter, our ship got orders canceling our return to San Francisco and ordering us to proceed around Africa and on to New York City. There, our ship was to be decommissioned. With our mail cut off, there was no way to let Betty know. For a long time, she had no idea where I was or how I was.
Once I reached port and contacted Betty, she did manage to get to New York, though it was a long train ride in those days. We got married in a small Episcopal church in the theater district, called The Little Church Around the Corner. New York was full of servicemen in those days and housing was tight. After the wedding, I managed to rent a room at the Ritz Carlton for three nights. The rate was $10/night but for people in the service there was a 25 % discount, so we paid just $7.50/night.
To get a Stateside billet, you needed a certain number of points, accrued in serving overseas. I knew I didn't have enough points to qualify. Meeting with the re assignment officer, I explained I had just gotten married the day before, and that I knew I didn't qualify for a stateside assignment, but my wife had a large apartment in San Francisco--- could he assign me to a ship home ported there? He was sympathetic and said sure. Just to make things nicer, he asked me where I'd like to pick my orders to San Francisco? I replied, I thought I would sure like to pick them up in Miami. He then ordered me to proceed to Miami to pick up my orders for re assignment, so the Navy at least picked up the transportation tab for our honeymoon. From Miami, we traveled to San Francisco and I served on a passenger liner bringing troops home from the war. Betty mustered out of the WAVs and got a job as a clerk in San Francisco.
When the navy let me go in '47 I got a job with a company that owned a plant in Raleigh and we've lived in the area ever since.
Returning to my truck, Mr Davis and I paused at the main hall entrance and he motioned to the glass case of photos of residents in their WWII uniforms. There had been a contest to see who still looked the most like their old photo. "I have a photo of Betty in her WAV uniform," he said, "but I wouldn't put it in here with the other women. Not fair. She was a lot prettier than they were."
They have been together 63 years, but the last ten years, she's been slipping away from him, parting them for far longer than the war ever did. Back then, they could write, but now there is no letter he can write that she can read or ever respond to.
He has lunch with her every day.
He sees her in the morning and helps nurses tuck her in at night.
Still, they are parted more sternly than the vagaries of war ever did. You cannot write to a mind that has slipped below the sunset of Alzheimer's.

He is like a man putting messages in a bottle thrown in the sea. As long as there is any chance of a last letter reaching that pretty young woman so far away he will write.

He writes to her now by simply being there, touching her, by saying "Good Morning." or "I love you." Maybe one will get through. He never knows.

But she waited for him, and he, by God, will wait for her.

Until their liberation.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Vulture in Flight

" I'm not actually CHASING that ambulance--I'm just CIRCLING it!" is the title for my new steel sculpture of a vulture / lawyer.
Vulture4885LITE(Click on photos to see enlarged versions)
I sell more vultures than you might think ---- to lawyers! (Lawyers with a sense of humor, obviously.)
Varnell, the Vulture measures 4 ft 3 inches (130 centimeters) high from wing tip to wing tip; 3 ft 2 inches long (97 cent.); and, 3 ft deep (91 cent.) Mounted on the square steel tube as in the photo left, Varnell is 5 ft 6 inches high (168 cent.)--anbody who purchases him can have a pole of varying length to make him higher in the air. I have not tried it, but I suppose he could be altered to hang on an office wall.

Generally, my sculptures of large birds have been posed perched on a large log or standing. This time, I wanted to stretch my wings, pun intended, and solve the technical problems of doing a large bird in flight. I have commissions to do several vultures, but this flying vulture is not one of them.
(click on photos to see enlarged versions)
If I simply made a bird and mounted it on a long steel pole, it would be visually uninteresting--you'd just be looking at the under side of the sculpture. I decided a bird swooping around in a turn at a steep angle allows the viewer to see the whole piece, head and eyes included, and it still looks natural. Too, it does not require as long a pole to be mounted on. The technical problem of the wings' stability was solved by using thicker than usual sheet steel, two hidden braces and struts. Steel feathers actually break up wind flow over the wings so they don't actually act as wings and flap (metal fatigue would break them like bending a coat hanger in two otherwise.)

The vulture is made of an old freon tank (used to add cooling gas to air conditioners and refrigerators) for the body, a spring, and the end of a stair railing for the neck, sheet metal for the wings, EMT (Electro Mechanical Tube) for the upper legs, rebar for the lower legs, and cut masonry nails for the toes. The head is made of had forged sheet steel with bits of welding rod for pin feathers and steel welding spatter for texture. The whole piece was painted with black metal primer, then painted with outdoor sign painters' enamels. Finally, it is clear coated commercially with a two part acrylic paint similar to that used on automobile bodies.

I am responsible for the amateurish photos of the vulture in progress in my studio. I'd like to thank and compliment my friend and next door neighbor, Laurence Lynn, a professional photographer who owns for the wonderful studio photos he took of the finished piece.
(click on photo to see enlargement)
Just for amusement, I used one of Laurence's vulture photos, dropped the studio background, replicated the vulture, and pasted the group over a photo I took in the Virginia mountains this summer. Then I re set the daylight to sunset and merged all the layers to make a flock of steel vultures at sunset in the mountains.

Some people have asked me about my working methods and what's my studio like--I have posted some photos of the steel vulture being built along with a few back ground photos of one of the three rooms in my workshop/studio at Look for the photo album on the right labeled "steel vulture."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Sculpture in Wood

Landscape is, perforce, a difficult thing to execute well in sculpture. Since landscape is hard to do well in sculpture, and because my wood working skills were rusty (pun intended), I recklessly proposed to some clients I do several urban landscape themes in wood. These are the first two pieces, each 67 inches long by 9 inches high (1.7 meters by 24 cm) Later this year, I'll be doing a third piece this size and then a larger, I hope spectacular piece, in wood of "cliff cities"--much like the dwellings left by the Anisazi in the American Southwest.
For the first time in nearly ten years, I did some work in wood. A local couple commissioned some pieces for their new home. They had orginally been intrigued with the abstract steel valences I'd done for my own home. After I visited their house, it seemed to me that steel would be too harsh for the setting. I noticed, that all the painting and photos they had bought for their walls were of urban landscapes.

The steel valences I created for our living room are completely abstract--here is one of the ones they saw.

I don't have a wood workingshop, but I do have a friend and neighbor, Frank Mansfield, who builds wonderfully detailed wood models in his retirement, who let me use his shop and offered his advice on wood working.

I wanted the first two wood pieces to direct the eye in the dirction of the other. The first two were for the clients' dining room.
The overall horizontal structure ofthe pieces conveys the idea of a landscape and the verticle little "buildings," add the texture and color (I used a variety of woods but no stains other than a sealer). A nice thing about this style is it could be used to make entirely abstract wood pieces for verticle areas in the home or office.
each piece measures 67 inches wide by 9.5 inches high (1.7 meters by 24 cm)

Close up of the pieces...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Blue Horse Mailbox

This piece is a large mailbox to be delivered to a client who owns a horse farm in Maryland. She has a horse named Blue, Blue lives in a lime green barn with a pet brown turkey named "Bourbon." The barn has bright blue trim. All those elements have all been incorporated into a unique mailbox. "Blue" is running and jumping the lime green barn, while very judgmental chickens have discovered Bourbon drinking "Mild Turkey" behind the barn.

The front of the mailbox opens when you pull the little hay hoist on the front of the "barn." To let the mailman know if there is mail to be picked up, instead of the usual red flag, I substituted an American one. A little ring at the top of the flag provides a way to tie balloons or streamers on the mailbox for holidays or parties.
The mailbox will be mounted on a steel pipe to raise it about 45 inches off the ground (1.2 meters). The mailbox itself with the horse, sun, etc. is 65 inches high (1.65 meters)

To create the piece, I started with a standard steel rural mailbox and welded a 16 gauge sheet steel roof it. The horse is made from a wheelbarrow wheel rim and the back legs from a farmer's tedder hook. The head is made from a beaten piece of pipe, a fork and washers. The neck is two bicycle stands welded backwards to ach other, and the hooves are lug nuts. The turkey, Bourbon, is made from electric motor parts, the end of a trailer axel, and bits of weld bead to build up his face and feet.

My next door neighbor, Laurence Lynn, a professional photographer, took these photos with skills and equipment far beyond any I possess and I certainly thank him (his web site is ) Joy and I will be going up to Maryland and Washington, DC for a four day holiday and to install the mailbox. Before then, the mailbox will be taken to a local company which will apply a durable clear coating to protect the finish.
Feel free to forward this along to anybody you know interested in leaping blue horses or drunken turkeys.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Butterfly Fairy Firescreen

Click on photos to see enlargements and details.

The new Butterfly Fairy firescreen is a private commission I delivered today. This work closely resembles the piece I created for my wife's Christmas present several years ago.
The design is inspired by a show at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Alfonse Mucha (the founder of Art Nouveau).
This version of the fire screen is slightly larger than the one I made for Joy and the ornamentation is slightly different. The side panels are made from electric motor parts as is the fairy's halo. The larger circle is an old lamp shade ring. The spirals in the wings are pieces of welding rod hand bent. The Butterfly Fairy was plasma cut in 16 gauge sheet steel. The whole was industrially powder coat painted in gold.
The two folding side panels are 12 inches wide by 36 inches high ( 30 cm x 90 cm)
The main front panel is 39 inches high by 36 wide (1m x 90 cm)