Copper in the Arts

March 2011

The Copper Panels of Artist Bruce McCall

By Nelson Harvey

Eight copper panels A selection of Bruce McCall's copper panels, made from applying a range of materials–from sand and leaves to wood blocks and snow–to heated sheets of copper.

Photograph courtesy of Bruce McCall

At first glance, the copper panels made by Burlington, VT-based artist Bruce McCall seem more likely to depict scenes from beneath the earth’s crust. Yet when asked about the inspiration for his art, McCall is unambiguous.

“Look at images that we get back from the Hubble space telescope,” he says. “In my copper art, that is what I’m trying to portray.” McCall says he has always been amazed that the Hubble images are not more celebrated, since they show what space looked like some 10 billion years ago. “I have a computer chock full of space images,” he said, “and copper captures space images beautifully.”

Although McCall has spent the last twenty years forging art from steel and copper, he came to metalwork with a more utilitarian focus. After graduating college with a degree in English, he longed to do something more material, and began to learn carpentry. This led to an acquaintance with a Vermont metalworker that he began working for in 1981, restoring metal antiques for use in the state’s burgeoning restaurant industry.

After that, McCall moved to San Diego, spending a year and a half as a metalworker focused on steel before returning to Vermont and shifting to jewelry.

“The scale of jewelry didn’t work for me,” he said. “I needed something bigger.”

Bruce McCall The artist Bruce McCall.

Photograph courtesy of Bruce McCall
He started his own small-scale metal work business, manufacturing craft-scale products like martini glasses and saltshakers, and his business quickly grew. Then, in the late 1990s when he had roughly 10 employees, the rise of overseas manufacturing began to undermine the domestic crafts industry and cut into his market. At the same time, he was tiring of his management role.

“I realized, all of a sudden, that I was an administrator rather than an artist, and I started making artwork,” McCall said. He continues to this day.

Although perhaps more known for his work with steel, McCall has made art with copper for decades.

“Copper is a remarkably soft and friendly material,” he said, noting that the metal’s best characteristic is also its worst. “The fact that it wants to oxidize so readily is beautiful, but it doesn’t weather outside predictably.”

In creating his copper panels, McCall works entirely outdoors, to facilitate the oxidation of copper that give his works their characteristic textured appearance. He starts with 4’ x 8’ sheets of copper sourced from a Connecticut company, which he cuts to his preferred size. Using a 40-ton press to minimize warping, McCall heats the metal with two torches: an oxyacetylene flame for maximum heat and a propane pavement burner for slower heating.

To create his intricate and chaotic designs, McCall uses a range of materials, from metal tools to wood, sawdust, leaves, sand, and even snow. Depending on the season, he cools the metal with snow, water, or simply air, before applying a high-grade wax to seal the surface.

McCall, who exhibits his work at a wide range of trade shows, craft shows and galleries throughout the year, is grateful for the chance to make art his livelihood.

“I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my hours on the planet, and that’s a blessing,” he said.

While most mornings find him in studio preparing for the next show, this father of two dedicates his afternoons to caring for his two young sons, ages 11 and 13. The two share their father’s artistic sensibility, although McCall says one is precise and calculated while the other is more abstract. Both, of course, are qualities that McCall himself cultivates as an artist.

“Our latest project has been making samurai swords for my sons’ Lego characters,” McCall said. The swords, he noted, are made from steel, bronze, and copper. “Hundreds of years after we’re gone, those little swords will probably be here,” he said. “And I think that’s kind of cool.”

Resources:

Bruce McCall, 180 Flynn Ave., Burlington, VT, (800) 639-1868

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