Copper in the Arts

June 2008

The Sky's the Limit for Celestial Copper Artist Phil Gauthier

By Michael Cervin

Artifact by Phil Gauthier Artifact by Phil Gauthier

Photograph by Phil Gauthier

"I look at a sheet of copper and I say to myself, what can this become?" artist Phil Gauthier asks. What they become, and what he is best known for are his copper constellations of the zodiac and his Goodnight Moons where, just like the stars that inspire him, no two are alike. His art makes use of other objects, marble, steel, anything he can put his hand to. "I like found objects; antique glass, paperweight, magnifying lenses," he says. "I've found a lot of things at yard sales and flea markets."

It's a quest for the old and the odd. "I love to re-purpose things," he says. That means brass from antique dressers, bells from telephones, toilet fixtures, even parts from old tractors.

Originally working as a woodworker, something he learned from his father, he discovered a piece of copper scrap one day and immediately thought, "What can I do with this?" As a marketing angle he wanted to produce a repeatable product where he could set up jigs and templates and have the ability to reproduce similar pieces, but with a wide range of variety. The zodiac idea was born. Gauthier creates each sign of the zodiac as a wall mounted sculpture. Pieces are hand hammered and measure 12 x 16 inches, embedded with glass, stones, steel and a celestial intensity.

"I buy sheet copper for my zodiac pieces, 12 gauge which is stiffer," he says, often purchasing 18 and 24 gauge direct from his local lumberyard for larger works. "The construction grade is softer, malleable and bendable."

For the creation of his zodiac and Goodnight Moons, he'll start with a template to mark where the stars go.

"I drill holes, then I've constructed a press whereby it punches through the holes and dimples the copper," he says, before using a scouring pad, similar to one found in kitchen sinks everywhere. "That puts lines in the copper that refract light." Then he pulls out the blowtorch and "paints the copper sheet." Depending on the length of time he holds the flame, he'll produce violet hues, golden hues and an array of colors befitting the universe. He then cleans and lacquers the copper sheet. "I epoxy the glass and steel balls that represent the stars and cement in the wire that connects them," he adds. The wire is raised from the copper in order to create a three dimensional aspect to the work and to compose shadows. Lastly he affixes the sheet on a mounting board using copper rivets. Gauthier has a vast array of hammers, some he's purchased and some he's actually made from woods like oak and maple in order to get the precise dimpling he wants.

The Home and Garden TV Network contacted him recently to profile his work for an episode of "That's Clever". The show, scheduled to air later this year, also gave him the opportunity to showoff his kinetic pieces.

"This work uses the same elements, copper, old fittings, brass, wood and glass, but the components are interactive," says Gauthier.

His hand driven pieces turn cranks, which activate levers that move bells which ring, and gears that turn. His wood gears are hand made, requiring precision carving, something he knows very well.

"My kinetic work has an aesthetic appeal as well as composition and mechanics," he adds. The complex pieces have caused some people to joke with him, questioning if he's a frustrated engineer. "No," he replies, "I'm a fulfilled artist."

He'll be showing his work once again at Art on the Commons in Londonderry, New Hampshire, his fourth year to participate. His Web site continues to do a brisk business for his one-of-a kind zodiac pieces and he's beginning another idea that encompasses Nordic runes and constellations. "It's kind of a Nordic navigation map," he says. Once again, copper will play a part. "From the first time I incorporated copper into my work I knew it was there to stay. I love the look and feel of it, the smoothness, how it bends and shape. It's a fabulous metal."

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