When most people think of metallic materials, they think of shiny, cold, and lifeless items, which isn’t all too surprising when you consider that pop culture has always depicted anything metallic as robotic and soulless, with a future covered in chrome and devoid of anything organic. I know this was the case for me, and when I was asked to write an article about “the soul and beauty of metalworking from past to present,” I was… hesitant, to say the least. I almost turned the job down, to be honest, because at the time I knew virtually nothing about metalworking. The extent of my knowledge was that at one point all we had was stone tools and then someone figured out how to extract metal from the ground and voila! Everything changed, right? But, I’m not the type of writer who says “no” to a project just because it requires a little bit of research. After all, any writer will tell you that research is a part of the process in any piece of work they do, and besides, we can always benefit from learning something new, right? So, I accepted this job and dove in to try and find the life coursing through the veins of metalworking.
What I’ve learned through researching and writing this piece is that there is so much more to it than I ever realized. The truth is that metalworking isn’t something dead and futuristic, but in fact it’s a field with a deep, rich history that is teaming with life – a life that continues to grow and develop today. This world goes way beyond making tools and playing wit fire and into a serious world of art and beauty that I never could have imagined, and the artists who are furthering the craft today are doing some seriously amazing work.
There is truly no craft that I can think of that is quite like metalworking. Everything from shelters and gates to armor or jewelry or even just a beautiful piece of artwork for you to stop and look at on your way to work can be made from metal. It can be hammered, punctured, heated, reshaped, and cooled until it is almost anything you want it to be. It can be decorative or protective, strong or delicate, shiny or dull. You can’t really say that about too many other materials on this planet. Here are a few amazing things that came from an artisan’s metallic handiwork:
⦁ Almost every bit of jewelry that anyone owns. Most jewelry is made out of metal. In fact, I guess I know a little bit more than I thought I did, because my husband and I actually made our own wedding rings. We worked with a professional jeweler as she guided us through the steps of melting down the metal, molding it into a bar that we rolled through a machine to flatten before hammering the bar around a cylindrical cone to give it its ring-like shape. The process was crazy and fascinating, and I highly recommend trying it out sometime!
⦁ The Titanic. Yeah. Think about that. Sure, the boat sank, but before that happened, it was built almost completely out of steel – millions and millions of pieces of steel, all of which had to be shaped and placed in exactly the right way in order to ensure that the boat could float (barring no icebergs got in the way.)
⦁ Medieval armor. Okay, can we just take a moment to picture a piece of Medieval armor? There are so many pieces involved! There is the chainmail underneath, all the little scales that have to shift and move underneath one another, and dozens of hinges to allow the knights to, you know, bend an arm once in a while. And back then they didn’t have machines to make these things. Next time you’re in a museum with a suit of armor, pause for a second, and just think about the attention to detail that went into that. It’s insane!
⦁ Plumbing. Yup! All those pipes that carry away our waste are completely made out of metal.
⦁ Sculptures. We’re going to talk a lot more about sculptures in the next part (because wow, what people are doing is truly unbelievable), but so many sculptures today incorporate at least a little bit of metalworking, proving that metal doesn’t have to just serve a practical function, but it can often be used for artistic purposes, as well.
⦁ The One Ring. Okay, that one doesn’t actually exist, but still, the scene when it was forged was pretty awesome, right?
⦁ Swords. Admit it: Every time you’ve watched a movie where you see a blacksmith making weapons for the warriors, you’ve though that blacksmith was kind of the coolest, right?
⦁ Religious icons. From Catholic crosses to Buddha statues, and everything in between, religions and temples have used the sparkling metals of our earth to worship and pay homage to their gods for centuries now.
⦁ Money. All those coins that we find so annoying? Yeah, those are forged!
⦁ And so much more.
Each one of those things was carefully designed and crafted by an artist with a vision in mind (at least in it’s original state. Sure, pennies are mass produced now, but there was a time when someone had to design and make that little copper disc that we all see as practically useless nowadays, and that job was seen as a great honor!), and the people who worked on every single piece put their heart and soul into them.
We can trace the earliest forms of metalworking all the way back to the aptly named Bronze Age, or 3,000 BCE. To put that into perspective, that is over 5,000 years ago. Over time, humans learned a lot about working with metals and developed various techniques to do so, the first of which was hammering and casting, which are exactly what they sound like: When hammering metal, you hit the metal with a hammer to dent it into a shape or design that you prefer. If you’re familiar with the Korean musical “Nanta” in which the players bang on pots and pans throughout the show, it sounds almost exactly like that. It’s loud, but not an entirely awful sound. Casting is the process of melting the metal down to a liquid state and then pouring it into the mold. Think again about that scene in Lord of the Rings when they forge The One Ring to Rule Them All. That moment when they pour the golden liquid into the mold at the beginning is casting. Everything made from metal goes through some form of this procedure.
Of course, as we humans are wont to do, people got bored and curious and they started playing around a bit more. They started upping their game by doing more intricate designs by experimenting with engraving (the process of carving a design into a piece of metal), inlaying (when you insert another metal or material into a carved groove on the first material), and enameling (coating something with a very thin layer of metal), because it wasn’t enough to have things that worked, but we also needed things that, well, looked cool. After all, humanity is nothing if not obsessed with how it appears, right? In Egypt, some crazy genius figured out that if you fuse silver, copper, lead, and sulfur together you’ll get a black powder known as Niello, which can be sprinkled over an engraved metal surface and then melted until it runs through the engraved channels. How they figured this out is beyond me, but I’m really glad that they did because the effect is incredible.
Some of the most interesting metal work throughout history has come from the Eastern hemisphere, where they quickly traded in stone for metal materials on almost everything: tools, jewelry, furniture, vessels and water basins, holy symbols, and even architecture. The metallic designs used throughout Asian history are some of the most intricate and complex, and more than anything, one can see that the pieces are so much more than functional. While many of us think of tools or armor when we think of ancient metalwork, there is a beauty and grace in many historical pieces from all over Asia to suggest that each one is full of life and has a story to tell. Even if there was a functional purpose to something, the creator always seemed to ensure that there was also a beauty. Now, of course, in the age of machine-built everything, this idea is returning at a rapid rate as more and more craftsmen are devoting their time to making things that have a more personal, soulful touch. Of course, many artists today are foregoing the idea of functionality all together and are using metals to explore all aspects of the human existence.
The Indonesian artist Titarubi uses metal to explore gender, culture, memory, and colonialism. One of her most moving pieces is History Repeats Itself, a deeply emotional depiction of the history of power. Her primary medium is gold-plated nutmeg because when the spice trade was booming in during the colonial era, nutmeg was worth its weight in gold in Indonesia. The boats that she has burnt are an ominous depiction of European ships appearing on the horizon and the horror that they brought to her homeland. It’s difficult to look at this piece and not feel something. Even without knowing the exact history, you can get a sense of what Titarubi is trying to say, and then when you read about it and discover all the layers of symbolism for yourself, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.
Victor Tan is a sculptor from Singapore who works exclusively with metal wires to depict the human experience. While he is visually impaired, he manages to create some of the most aesthetically immaculate representations of the human form. On his website he says that “Sculpture to him, is a way of exploring and experiencing the constant change and movement around him. For Victor, each change, each movement, each experience suggests a new possibility.” Each and every piece shows people (and on rare occasions animals) in motion. They all seem to elicit a sense of calm and peace. Much of Tan’s goal is to communicate that we are all on a journey, moving to life and time at various paces, and always in flux. So how can we use that motion for good? He challenges his viewers and himself with this question in almost every piece he creates.
Richard Serra is an American artist who is best known for his large-scale steel sculptures that are often site-specific installations. The pieces are so large that any person wandering through and around them (as viewers are encouraged to do) are dwarfed by their presence. Each piece challenges us to reconsider our perceptions of our bodies in physical spaces. His most famous piece of work is probably the Torqued Ellipse, which was inspired by a 17th century Baroque church in Rome.
Rathin Barman also loves to use metal to challenge our perception of physical spaces, but instead of playing with size, he toys with our ideas of the structural identity of a city. One of his most famous pieces is Home, and a Home, which debuted in 2016, and uses thin poles of iron and brass to explore the idea of houses as homes, an idea that has been shaped by conversations had with people who have been displaced from Bangladesh since 1947. I particularly enjoy how light and shadow are used in his work to make these skeletal buildings feel bigger.
The widely exhibited artist in Asia, David Chan, uses his metalwork to explore human behavior, often mixing images of human creation with animals to challenge viewers to look beneath the surface. With his piece The Great East Indiaman, Chan uses the history of Singapore’s National Museum, which started as a Natural History Museum, and mixes these origins with a famous myth of a mystical whale that had delivered Sir Stamford Raffles to the shores of Singapore. The result was the bones of a giant steel ship containing a large wooden whale skeleton in its belly. The piece was so large, in fact, that it had to be displayed on the lawn of the National Museum.
L.A. based artist Rosha Yaghmai is a whole different level of interesting. While David Chan mixed wood and metal, Yaghmai mixes new and found materials from copper, aluminum, and iron to silicone and eyeglass lenses (yes!) into her artwork and the effects she achieves are incredible. The mixing of the materials is said to explore Los Angeles as a concept, a city made of industrial buildings and psychedelic art and lifestyle. Probably her most impactful piece is “Made in L.A,” in which she explores her own origins by projecting her father’s old slides through a paneled screen of her own creation that is made up of various materials, some of which are her own personal artifacts.
And then there’s Letha Wilson. I’m still not entirely sure how she does what she does, and to be honest, I don’t think I care, because her stuff is just so cool that it doesn’t matter. It’s almost like she really enjoyed working with metal, but also was crushing it as a nature photographer, so she just shrugged and said “Why not combine the two?” The results? Stunning abstract slices of metal with photographs of incredible landscapes such as The Grand Canyon printed onto them. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Wilson definitely just raised the bar.
Speaking of words, let’s take a second to talk about the artist Davina Semo, whose titles for her works are almost as compelling as the pieces themselves. Her art often appears to have been made of salvaged items from industrial yards, which can be cool enough on it’s own, but then when you see a title like “THEY’VE BECOME COMFORTABLE WITH THEIR MONEY,” SHE SAID, “THEY GENUINELY BELIEVE THEY’RE ENTITLED TO IT,” you know it’s about so much more than just aesthetics. She uses her materials to disrupt the norm and to almost assault the physical assumptions, which therefore assaults our psychological assumptions as well. Nothing about her work is what it seems, and yet it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what she’s trying to communicate with each piece. Things are as delicate as they are violent, and as beautiful as they are grotesque.
I came into this project without any idea of what I was getting myself into. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure that I know too much about metal work (I’m definitely still a novice), but I do know that it is a craft that is to be marveled at, and I’m interested in learning more. When I think of steel, I no longer simply picture a construction site or a factory. Instead I picture the Titanic, or the work of Richard Serra. Aluminum isn’t simply what holds sugary sodas, but it’s instead a malleable substance that can be shaped into almost anything. Copper isn’t only worth one cent, but instead can make one question our perceptions of an entire city.
It’s also amazing to me that our methods for working with these materials as essentially remained the same for thousands of years – we hammer it, melt it down, and bend it into shape. Sure, our tools have evolved, but the same basic principals still apply, even after thousands and thousands of years. It’s pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it.
So does metal have a soul? No. But what we do with it absolutely does. Artists such as the ones listed above (and so many more!) are doing fascinating things with these materials to make us stop and pay closer attention to the world around us, whether they are trying to get us to think about the passage of time, or reconsider our size in this universe. Some of them are sending urgent messages to call us into action, while others are looking inward to figure out what action they should take next. Regardless of their messages or goals, one thing is abundantly clear: There is beauty there. There is life.