The Zen of Metalworking

Last month Chuck forwarded me an innocuous sounding email from the local vintage motorcycle mailing list.  There were a few metalworking classes being held at the art school at UWM, and he was thinking of signing up for a few. They did sound intriguing, and I figured I’d tag along with him for the soldering and welding classes (I had taken TIG and stick welding classes before, but welding/forming sheet metal was new to me, and I really wanted to learn soldering techniques for when I eventually try tinkering around with brass paintguns). The emphasis on hand work both intimidated and excited me – I’m used to the sharp, prismatic capabilities of mills and lathes, and the ability to create free-flowing shapes without use of CNC is a skill that I covet and admire.

Being that the classes were run through the art school, I was a little apprehensive – I’ve never really ‘gotten’ fine art, though I have certainly tried. I did take an art history class as an elective long ago, and though I did come away with an appreciation for the intent of the Dadaists and marveled at the technical skill of the Trompe-l’œil painters, I just can’t get past the attitude that seems part and parcel of ‘art’ – the feeling that ‘art’ is more and more meant only to be consumed by others in the field, removing it from the reach of the common person. I checked out a DVD of Chihuly Over Venice at the library a while back, as glassblowing certainly takes a great deal of skill and I wanted to learn more about the craft. However, the video was disappointing – Dale Chihuly struts around the whole time, commanding other glass blowers in what to do, and the end result is a bunch of twisted orange glass hanging from some steel pipes that he had no hand in the actual making of. I wanted to see more of what the craftsmen were doing, as they should be given the credit for creation. It basically reinforced my appraisal that to be an artist requires only two things: a beret and an attitude.  (Addendum – I’ve since found that Chihuly had suffered a shoulder injury some time back that left him unable to continue doing his own glasswork, thus he relies on other craftsmen. I have to give him a pass on that account, but I still don’t get his art.)

Still, the fact that our instructor, Frankie Flood, had an interest in motorcycles and had made motorcycle themed pizza cutters (which I actually remember seeing on a number of blogs last year, and could actually appreciate as artistic objects), I had hope that I could learn some new skills rather than simply be baffled by ‘art’. I was not disappointed. Class ran from 6pm to 9pm, though Chuck and I invariably stayed long after to chat extensively with Frankie over the widest range of topics imaginable, from machining techniques, to educational systems, to the philosophy of craftsmanship (we’ve all bought copies of Shop Class as Soulcraft). Refreshingly, even though Frankie was art department faculty, he had the same difficulty of wrestling with ‘art’ that I have had. When he elected to build a chopper for his thesis, his professors were abhorred, decreeing such work as lowbrow and worthless (wonder if they said the same of Roy Lichtenstein). He still struggles with this, noting that ‘art’ has become more about the ‘idea’ rather than the craft. It all leads me to wonder – maybe I won’t be able to ever understand ‘art’, but with artists and teachers like Frankie out there, maybe someday ‘art’ will understand us.

Photos and details to follow.

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