Learning to love creating IRL – again

At the end of January, after a particular trying run at work when files and work weren’t being backed up before being accidentally deleted, I decided that I needed to create something that couldn’t be erased with the click of a button. Unless clicking that button resulted in an explosion or fire storm. At the very least, how about an alarm or a chime?

I used to, and still do, love to draw, but being accustomed to the speed at which digital images can be created I found drawing to be tedious. Even though I enjoy it, unless you’re one of those bimanual folks who can control both hands independently at the same time, at any one point most people can only create in the finite breadth and depth of their chosen medium; that is to say if you’re using a pencil to create a picture, the area you’re working with at any one time is the width of the pencil lead. A graffiti artist painting a mural usually uses spray paint because it affords larger coverage (and usually the speed required by the illicit nature of the medium), as opposed to a paint brush even though it would give them more control over the application.

I guess that’s the long way of saying that I wanted to see faster results.

Anyway, a few years ago my neighbor took a sculptural welding class and loved it. Knowing I was artistically inclined, she had been trying to convince me to take the class ever since. Always having the excuse of not enough time, I never took her up on it.

Fast forward two years, to a time when I have only one freelance client and more time than anything, I decide to pull the trigger.  Knowing absolutely nothing about welding (sculpture or otherwise), I enroll at a class offered at Mesa Art Center, as it was the only class I could find that didn’t have welding certification as the end goal.

In the first session, going around the class of nine people, most of my classmates were office workers, a couple worked in different local hotels, and one was in construction. Only one had ever welded before, and it wasn’t the guy in construction.  Everyone has either known someone who had taken the class or had known someone in the past who had welded and wanted to check it out.

When Matt, the instructor, asked what I did, I stated that I was a web designer, which meant that I sat in a cubicle and designed things that didn’t exist. That prompted some more questions, so I offered a little bit about my reasons for taking the class, highlighting the recent round of deleted work that was plaguing my department.

I didn’t realize it, but “This is Aaron. He sits in a cube and creates stuff that doesn’t exist” was going to be how I was introduced by Matt from then on.

As soon as we got through the safety instructions and donned our gloves, goggles, and fire-retardant denim shirts, Matt fired up an Oxy-Acetylene welder, which uses a mixture of oxygen and acetylene to literally melt pieces of metal together. Most of my classmates held the torch tenatively, towards the far end, near where the hoses join. This keeps your hands as far away from the flame as possible, but makes the torch almost impossible to maneuver with any level of control. Imagine painting and only holding the very far end of the brush…it works, but not very well.

When my turn came up, I found that the thick leather gloves made it possible to hold the torch almost at the fiery end, giving me a lot of control and the ability to weld in tight circles, forming a decent bead on my first attempt, eliciting a”Whoa…you’ve done this before!” from Matt.

“No, but I’ve used a pencil before. Easier to control if you hold it near the point than at the eraser. Seems like the same concept.”

After the Oxy-Ace machine, we got to work on a MIG machine. MIG stands for Metallic Inert Gas – in this case the gas was argon.  It’s considered inert because the gas itself isn’t inherently flammable.  The electricity passes through the machine and the copper-encased steel wire, and the argon is present just to keep the welding area clean. Compared to the Oxy-Ace setup, the resulting welds are cleaner, faster, and easier, supposedly. While I was a decent beginner at the Oxy-Ace process, it took me some time to get the MIG process down to a passable level of mess.  The rest of the class was spent welding nails to steel scraps.

Classmate learning how to use the oxyacetylene welder.
Classmate learning how to use the oxyacetylene welder.

The next week, we were taught to use the lighting-in-a-box plasma cutter, which basically cuts steel by shooting a lighting bolt through it.  At least that’s what it looks like. Since this wasn’t a computer-aided machine, our tenuous cuts were rough and sloppy, in stark contrast to Matt’s examples of smooth lines and graceful curls. We spent most of the time trying not to set ourselves or our classmates on fire.

There is something that happens when you realize you hold in your hand the ability to cut through steel. It’s a feeling of power, mixed with a smattering of “I shouldn’t be able to do this.”  This is steel, after all.  Swords and bullets and tanks are made of this stuff. You feel like a superhero, or a mad scientist.

Once Matt was comfortable with our skills, we were given our first assignment: we’re going to be making agave plants. They were relatively easy to create, utilized the skills we already had learned, and, as we soon discovered, are fairly difficult to screw up.

“Even the worst agave sculpture looks like a real plant,” quipped Matt.

That was also the exact moment when I realized why my neighbor’s yard and living room were full of agave sculptures. And here I just thought she was into them.

I began my assignment like everyone else in the class, drawing various sizes of long, sloped triangles with a Sharpie on a giant piece of 20-gauge sheet metal I bought earlier that day. Then we took turns cutting out the rough leaves with the plasma cutter.

As the class progressed, the piles of similarly-shaped leaves grew at each of our work spaces. Some people decided that they wanted their leaves to be a little more rough than others,  so they took a steel hammer to jagged leaves to give them some “character.”

Matt was right, you could really take some liberties with these things and beat the crap out of them. They still came across as agaves.

By the time I had my leaves done, and had begun working on the stalk that would eventually hold my sure-to-be crude flowers, I had an epiphany: I don’t have to do the same thing as everyone else. This is a class I’m paying for, it’s not for a grade, and the point is to learn. One thing I had already learned was that it didn’t want a damn agave sculpture in my yard.  I already have real cactus, bottle brushes, and a thorny sage bush in the yard. Provided I learn the lessons he’s trying to teach, I thought I should be able to do whatever I wanted.

I asked Matt if I could do another variation of similar plant, like an iris? Same basic structure, but rather than jagged edges and sharp corners, an iris would be smooth and streamlined. “The kind of clean design is more my speed” I told Matt. I sketched it out to show him what I was thinking. Also to convince him I knew what an iris looked like and that since I could draw it, I could probably create it. Or so I thought.

Iris sketched in my ever-present Field Notes memo book.
Iris sketched in my ever-present Field Notes memo book.

“You should probably do the agave first, then in lieu of the next project you can do whatever you want, and I’ll help.”

“What’s the next project then?”

“Skeletons. Creatures, to be more specific. Creating the skeletal framework of a creature is a great way to learn how to form figures and gives you a basis for future figures. Like the little dinosaur skeleton in the display case outside the class.”

Since there was no way in hell I was going to miss the chance to weld a dinosaur, I decided to go ahead with my iris and deal with any potential fallout later. I started over, cutting longer, smooth leaves out of my sheet metal, then grinding the edges off so they were like so many little swords. I was able to use the existing stalks from my agave design, so after cutting out several variations of petal designs, I got to work with the mallet, beating curves and undulations into the petals.

Iris leaves and petals, prior to sanding down the edges

Turns out, it’s kind of difficult to turn steel into something that looks soft and whispy, at least for a guy who has exactly zero welding experience. After multiple attempts and restarts, I ended up with some petal designs that I could live with, and began the assembly process.

Iris in progress – before the final grinding and smoothing

Once I welded the first graceful leaf onto my base, Matt realized I had ditched the agave idea, and the jig was up. He showed me a couple of tricks to help keep the form right, but left me to answer the questions from classmates about why my design didn’t look as beat up or as rough as theirs. Not that mine was any better or worse than the others mind you…it was just different.

Some classmates’ work

It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but for a first attempt at the art of welding, I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out, and can’t wait to learn more, and anxious to get to the next project.

And the best part? I’d like to see someone delete this with a click of a button.

The completed Iris, in my back yard.
The completed Iris, at my back yard.
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