Copper in the Arts

July 2012

Shelbyvision: Timeless Celebration of Nature in Brass or Copper

By Nancy Ballou

bronze sculpture Evolution. Copper and brass sculpture.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Shelby

After 23 years at Fox Products Corporation creating metal parts for contrabassoons while making tools and jigs, Indiana-based artist Steve Shelby put out his shingle and started his own line of metal arts.

"I originally wanted to stand out from the crowd by using brass instead of copper, which is ubiquitous with metalsmiths," he says. "Lately, I'm trying both. Brass can be stretched more than silver or copper without cracking. But I like the look of copper. It's easy to form even though it won't stretch as far and, of course, there's no firescale," says Shelby.

Shelby has always been interested in art, and holds a BA in Art from Ball State University and took classes at Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania. He then studied chain-making from a local jeweler, learning the craft. Today, he purchases his copper and brass sheets from McMaster-Carr industrial supply.

"They have the best prices for the quantities I use and I can have my online orders the next day, says Shelby. "I purchase silicon bronze sheet, which is hard to find in smaller than industrial-size quantities, from Atlas Metal Sales in Colorado."

Shelby believes in using the simplest, most practical surface treatments on his metal art.

"I want to think these pieces will be around many generations from now," he says. "I don't want someone in the distant future having to deal with eroded lacquer or trying to figure out how the original patina was produced."

A simple liver of sulfur patina provides an aged appearance and fine steel wool creates a burnished satin finish renewable any time.

"I love the look of metal and when someone else looks at one of my pieces, I don't want anything between their eyes and the metal surface," he explains.

Tea Wrex, brass sculpture Tea Wrex. A hammer formed teapot made with 10-gauge copper.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Shelby

All Shelby's original artwork is labor intensive. "Tea Wrex," a hammer formed teapot made with 10-gauge copper, required 120 hours over six months. He decided against brass to form the complicated structure and used a piece of 4" copper tubing that had been given to him. The legs/tail section, the most complicated part of the project was made first. The tail is a "spiculum," in metalworking jargon and has a silver soldered seam on the inside of its curve. He had to make several new tools to form and smooth the feet and toes. The belly is the actual vessel for holding liquid and pouring. Consisting of one seamless piece, raising, annealing, tweaking with heavy planishing hammers and stakes, grinding then filing took many stages to get it to fit perfectly into the legs/tail section.

"I sculpted the arms from a 1/4" copper rod, removed metal where it needed to be thinner and ran the drill using a belt sander to eliminate the excess metal," Shelby describes. "Elbows were annealed and bent using a steel block and mallet. I fashioned a special punch and die for formation, then hammered, bent, flattened and created the fingers by sawing down the middle. I've made many tools for my metalsmithing work, including a large raising stake, several smaller ones, punches ranging from 1" diameter x 8" long to 1/4" diameter x 4" long and have altered numerous hammers. Now all I need is some place to store everything."

Shelby works free from outside influence at his studio a mile from his house on 20 acres of land. He has a tree nursery, garden and two ponds to inspire him along with nature walks.

His work is currently featured in "Cu29/Contemporary Work in Copper" at the Mesa Art Center in Mesa, AZ, and "Forged," at the Target Gallery, Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria, VA. His latest one-of-a-kind copper piece, "Evolutionary Marvel," is on exhibition in Fort Wayne, IN.

"I only recently started using copper, but there should be more in the future," he says. "I had been making cat and dog pet urns in brass. A year ago I began offering them in copper and they now account for half my orders."

Resources:

Shelbyvision, Northeast Rural Indiana, (260) 723-5210.

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