Gardens Light Up with Grant Massey's Copper Creatures
In 1991, Grant Massey fashioned his first iconic copper and cedar yard light; a timeless piece that would eventually become his trademark in Sussex County, Delaware and beyond. But his initial experimentation with copper art began two years earlier, when Massey found himself wanting to shift out of his occupation as a contractor, building homes.
"When I started, I used leftover materials I had from a previous business, some of which was a roll of copper and some fish patterns," Massey explains. "From one of the houses I built, I constructed a large truss structure out of oak beams, and there were steel fish gussets bolted to it to hold it together. That became my first fish pattern."
With the copper formerly intended to accommodate the need for roof flashings, Massey liked reflecting on his incidental recreation of the metal's purpose.
"From flashings to fish-that was an alliterative career change," says Massey.
As he began to experiment with copper as an artistic medium, Massey had the idea to introduce light as an element to his work.
"For some reason, from an early age, I've always had an interest in making lamps and lanterns, and where that comes from, I really have no idea," Massey admits.
His original yard light post with its wavy wooden base took shape as a kind-hearted housewarming gift for a loved one.
Recognizing the unique persuasion and appeal of the design, he continued to build more pieces, often with different sorts of fish, birds and other creatures from the natural world perched atop each new post. Each artwork was well matched for accenting the landscaping outside of a home.
Today, fish are a strong component in Massey's work on a regular basis.
"The kind of fish on the posts really didn't make much difference to me, but of course, it does to everybody else," he says. "So over the years, I've had requests for different species of fish to the point where I've probably done 40 or 50 different species."
Dolphins, crows, blue jays and horseshoe crabs are a few other inspirations that have taken shape on his sought after yard lights. An armadillo has also once been a part of his yard light post history, as well as a peacock, and he's welded crawling chameleons on sconces, too.
He's created a variety of boats as well. Once, a woman commissioned a tugboat light yard post for her husband who served as a captain on the very tugboat Massey mimicked.
The prevalence of nautical themes in Massey's work is fairly easy to understand, given that he lives only five miles away from the Atlantic Ocean.
Once, a woman asked him to design a mobile for her. Of course, his talent for creating fish with copper served him well for this endeavor. Today, mobiles are a popular part of Massey's lineup.
"Another woman said she'd been searching for a chandelier for her dining table for years but wasn't able to find one," Massey says, noting that she wanted him to make one for her based on the idea of the mobile.
After that, he began building charismatic yet gleeful chandeliers with schools of fish swimming through fused glass.
Massey works from patterns and often delves into the delicacy of drawings, performing calculations of geometry where necessary to bring the best possible aesthetics and durability to the pieces, especially with lanterns.
All of his yard light posts come wired and ready to install, crafted from western red cedar.
"It's a good wood to work with," Massey admits.
The posts, when ordered through his studio, have instructional sheets included so new owners know how preserve the pieces. His website also includes detailed care instructions, so they can continue to appreciate the beauty and captivating appeal of these one-of-a-kind structures for years to come.
Massey sells the posts in sizes that range from four feet, six feet, up to seven feet tall. The glass stretching around the light fixtures in his posts is something he designs based on what suits the creature on top best, like tall weeds or a marsh grass when upright birds are the main feature of a post.
Massey uses copper he purchases from Unimet Metal Supply, Inc., which has one of its five locations across the country in Parsippany, New Jersey, about four hours from his studio.
His two-story tall studio is across from his home and has several specialty rooms, specific to the parts of his processes.
Massey works with not only wood, metal and fused glass but also sometimes clay for molds.
A sanding room offers space for him to smooth the cedar posts of his yard lights. A sandblasting room is where Massey houses his lanterns and other copper parts prior to patination, for cleaning the metal to a crisp finish.
Massey pointed out that in his process, the drawings he works from are often sketches from photographs
"I start by doing drawings usually from photographs because I haven't been to Texas," he says playfully in referencing a longhorn cow commissioned piece.
"Once the drawing is developed, I transfer it to metal and cut it out. I hammer the metal, raising it because there are two halves since they're full-bodied animals."
Massey raises the left and right pieces but adds in small amounts of copper in different areas since the shape changes as he brings it to life in a three-dimensional form, as the curves begin to blossom.
Soldering follows. "I hold the pieces together with one hand and solder with the other, moving along pretty quickly," Massey says. "Lately, I've been doing a mixture of copper and wrinkled glass, taking glass and letting it slump down into ceramic forms I've made. I mount it on a copper armature with a school of fish swimming in front of it. I think of it as a kind of global warming series. It's another direction to head in, trying to work with form, shape, line and balance."
Massey has been using a heat treatment to color the newest works, which he's quite enthusiastic about in this new turn of his copper and glass-intertwined labors.
And making everything possible behind the scenes with business and writing efforts for the studio is Massey's wife, Lynn.
In the past, Massey's work has appeared in the catalog store of Boston's Fine Art Museum and also in the Philadelphia International Flower Show. His work has also been featured in shows spanning from Minnesota to Florida. His copper-rich pieces are on display at the Rehoboth Art League in Delaware from time to time. Massey drop-ships his sculptures for the catalog known as Charleston Gardens as well.
Today, Massey estimates that he's probably been the parent of around 5,000 samplings within his line of artistry since copper first captivated him outside of home construction.
"Copper is so forgivable," he says. "It can be reworked, annealed, polished, sandblasted and soldered. I also use different thicknesses, so I can make different brackets when necessary. I can harden it to give it a little extra strength. It's just such a malleable material."
To Massey, copper is always one opportunity hiding within another.
"Sometimes I even weld it by melting it onto other copper," Massey adds. "It's just a nice, polite material to work with versus steel or something like that."
Also in this Issue:
- Gardens Light Up with Grant Massey's Copper Creatures
- Love at First Weld
- Blazer Studios: Handmade Copper Art for the Garden
- Bringing Beauty and Style to Backyard Gardens
- The Art of Cooking