Copper in the Arts

February 2014

Connecting to the Soul of Copper

By Courtney H. Diener-Stokes

Michael Biddison SculptureMichael Biddison sculpture

It was during the process of creating a co-collaborative site-specific installation for the lobby of an AAA (American Automobile Association) headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, that the value of working with various metals dawned on artist Michael Biddison.

“That is where I discovered metal was something cool---before that I was pretty much a wood guy,” Biddison says, referring to the process of creating a 27-foot long commissioned sculpture with fellow sculptor, Scot Taylor, made primarily of interpretive car parts. “There are certain materials that seem to capture and hold history and energy more than others,” he says. “Wood is one of those things that tend to have a whole, nice relationship. That history is richer and there are a few other materials – one is copper.”

There are certain attributes of copper that draws Biddison to incorporate the metal into his work he refers to as ‘primarily sculptural that happens to be functional.’

“I just noticed it has a lot of languages,” he says. “Anything I’m attracted to has layers. Visually copper has layers – it could be patina, or brown or shiny – it has a lot of different languages even in itself. You can be very expressive with it. When it is old it has wrinkles and is easily bent – it is playful.”

More reasons beyond aesthetics attract Biddison to copper.

“Copper is flexible, it weathers, it lasts forever – it’s truly a remarkable material,” he says. “It’s also non-toxic.”

Muses Door:  Geode, Cave and Teetering StoneMuses Door: Geode, Cave and Teetering Stone

Biddison’s primary work outside of creating his art is in the restoration carpentry field, which he says has enriched his creativity and plays into his self-described nature as a scavenger of sorts.

“I try not to pay for anything,” he says of objects either found or given to him to create his sculptural work. “When I’m doing restoration carpentry jobs, if part of a roof needs replacement and is not useful anymore, I’ll take it home.”

He also frequently comes across copper plumbing pipes that people are tossing out. Other architectural fragments, such as parts of a roof, old copper square head nails, doors, windows, numbers from doors, door bells – all items that might be considered trash to some at one point are the very foundation of Biddison’s work.

“All of my metal pieces are reused and pulled off of buildings,” he says.

When he collects these materials, you can still see the original patterns from the buildings themselves, which are then transposed into the copper after years of wear and tear.

“Wooden cracks get creased into the copper and it is like a copper print of its previous life,” he says, adding that he sees these details as a starting point for his work. “I think people are attracted to things that have a history whether they can put their finger on it or not,” he says. “In a metal or a wood when you feel a soul in something –there is something magical about that.”

Traveling Light Sculpture, by Michael BiddisonTraveling Light, sculpture by Michael Biddison
When Biddison thinks of furniture as simply furniture, he feels it is all about the function and the craft.

“There is a certain dogma that goes along with that,” he says, further explaining his work in contrast. “Mine is very freewheeling and improvisational. I appropriate expressively for the materials and where it wants to be. You might call them chairs and lights and tables but that is not how I look at them when I’m doing them. You are inquisitive – you are sensual. There is a whole way of being with art and that’s what my stuff is about.”

In the case of a log chair he made for a Wharton Esherick Museum fundraiser, he began with one object---a single log.

“Working with one piece of wood looks like it’s easy, but it’s expanding and contracting and cracking while you’re doing it,” he says. “I used the copper band to hold it together like a barrel would be. That was an old copper pipe that was pounded flat.”

In past years, the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show was an annual focal point to showcase and sell his work, but not anymore.

“My work is now mostly commissioned-based and word of mouth,” Biddison says. “A lot of referrals  come from my contracting. Customers are interested to see what I pull from their dumpsters and what I can do with it.”

Some commissioned pieces are structured around very specific physical dimensions and materials and in other cases, customers give him free reign with his creativity.

The next show where a collection of Biddison’s recent and past works will be on display is the Chester County Open Studio Tour in May that will consist of 34 studios open to the public for the event.

We are Standing Still, Sculpture by Michael Biddison We are Standing Still, sculpture by Michael Biddison

Biddidson’s farmhouse in the Chester County countryside, originally a country store in the early 1800’s, doubles as a gallery space.  He has three shop/studio spaces he utilizes on his property. The barn, he refers to as his large, “summer space”, in addition to having a “winter shop” and “desk shop”.

“They are all in constant rotation depending on what project I’m working on,” he says.

Biddison was formally trained as an undergraduate in fine art, sculpture and painting and later did extensive graduate work in mixed media and performance.

“I have been doing something in the arts since I graduated from college in ’83,” he says. “The path of least resistance for me is to work with as many materials functionally and non functionally – usually there is something beautiful that can be done with that.”

Biddison feels there is something gained on many levels when you play with the elements of the world in a physical way.

“When you feel like you have your hands on those controls – you feel that nobody has to provide anything for you to have an inquisitively, creative life.”

Resources:

Michael Biddison, Glenmoore, PA, (610) 247-8718

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