Copper in the Arts

October 2009

Dick Roberts: From Photography to Metal

By Melanie Votaw

Dick RobertsDick Roberts at work

Photograph by Lois Roberts

Fort Myers, Florida metal artist Dick Roberts started out as a photographer. "As far back as I can remember, I've always been interested in art," he says, "but I used to think as a child that in order to be an artist, you had to be a painter."

Since he didn't have the hand/eye coordination for painting, he ended up spending 40 years as a professional photographer. Then, the world of photography changed, switching to digital.

"Today, anyone with a digital camera and a computer can be a photographer," says Roberts. So, he looked for another medium in which to express himself.

First, he tried woodworking, but it wasn't quite challenging enough. Then, he began working with copper, and he hasn't looked back since, although he now often mixes copper with steel and aluminum. "I started exploring different types of metals," he says. "The more I got involved in it, the more I got excited about it."

He felt that it was like magic to take a flat sheet of metal and create something entirely new out of it. This exploration led to all sorts of art pieces in both organic and abstract forms that Roberts sells to various customers. He creates sculptures, fountains, wall art, and more practical pieces like house number signs. While the majority of his work is commissioned, Roberts is always searching for new ideas. When he thinks of something he'd like to make, he doodles.

Roberts received a bachelor's degree from a visual arts school in photography, but he's entirely self-taught in metal work. All he had to work with in the beginning were aviation snips and an oxygen and acetylene torch. To educate himself, he read what a lot of other artists shared on the Internet.

"I've learned from other people, but they don't even know me," he says. "There's a vast amount of information out there if you go looking for it." Roberts is grateful for this generosity among artists and is happy to pass along any tips that he has discovered during his own journey.

So, when he tried with difficulty to cut steel by hand, he conducted some online research and discovered the CNC plasma cutter. Now, he designs everything on his computer and cuts out shapes for his art with the cutter. What once took hours to cut by hand now takes closer to 20 minutes.

With the plasma cutter, Roberts can scan a hand-cut leaf, for example, into his computer and cut as many in metal as he needs.

Dick Robert's Work

Copper wall sculpture

Photograph by Dick Roberts

"I turn down the voltage really, really low because copper will build up heat," he says, "and it's like cutting butter with a hot knife." In the past, he "fire painted" the edges of the leaves to create different colors and give them character. But he discovered that the plasma cutter leaves a residue that creates the same kind of unique character on each piece of metal. He does everything else by hand. "It doesn't take away from the art," he says. "You're still doing the artwork."

For example, after cutting out shapes for a fountain with the plasma cutter, Roberts was still faced with flat copper pieces that had to be shaped into a vessel. "I used a tree stump and pounded them into the shape I wanted," he says. "I did this by annealing and pounding and then annealing and pounding some more. After I got the shape I wanted, I used a planishing hammer to make them smooth."

Roberts is aware that some artists believe using a plasma cutter is cheating. But he contends that few artists are working the way metal artists did 100 years ago.

"Most artists are using some sort of mechanical device," he says, "so it's just the next step in technology."

While he likes the idea that he can save his designs on the computer and cut the shapes again whenever he wants, Roberts doesn't love to repeat work. Like most artists, he prefers to try something new and stretch his skills to see what he can accomplish. Roberts gets his steel and aluminum from a local store called Bob Dean's Supply, and he gets his copper from Stormcopper.com.

"Copper is a strange metal," Roberts says. "If you heat it up to red hot but not burn it, it becomes very soft and pliable. But once you start working it again, it becomes hard…. I like the coloring of it and the way you can handle it."

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