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Lee Sauder - Crossing the Creative Matrix

by Anna Fariello - © Metalsmith Magazine - Winter 2003
There are few disciplines that depend primarily upon visual observation for an understanding of human creativity and meaning behind objects. An art historian examines a composition to determine a work's authenticity and attribution; an appraiser closely examines a piece of jewelry to confirm its value; an archeologist learns to read an object as evidence of the physical process which produced it. But as viewers of art, we tend to suppress reading an object in favor of an appreciation of its aesthetic value.

Nyamakala 9, Gash, 2001
bloom iron 18 x 7 1/2 "
Photo: Ellen Martin

However much, or little, time we might spend examining a work of art, we seldom consider the process that brought it into being. Process is more than the difficult labor that gives birth to artistic offspring. For the maker, it can become a critical factor in the aesthetic decision-making that shapes the final piece. For die viewer, understanding the artist's process and motivation is often integral to understanding the meaning of the work.

Process plays an important creative role in the recent iron sculptures made by Lee Sauder, an artist living and working in Lexington , Virginia . Evocative, lyrical, and sensual, his work reveals much about the physical relationship between the artist and his material. Sauder's iron sculptures and "pyro-prints" impart the sense of discovery and passion that informs his work. Indeed, the object represents a subtle reenactment of maker with material.

As a document, the finished object can be considered a physical record of the process that produced it; it may also reveal the artist's inspiration, creativity, and technological experimentation. For the past five years the experimental process that has defined Sauder's creative activity is one that is relatively unknown even in the world of metalsmithing: bloomery smelting. A small-scale, labor-intensive process, bloomery smelting is the original method of releasing iron from its ore. This centuries-old technology was supplanted by its successor, the blast furnace, at the beginning of the sixteenth century and all but disappeared from the Western world. However, bloomery smelting survived in Africa into the early twentieth century, where the process carried a religious and cultural significance. In the 1960s bloomery smelting was rediscovered and investigated by archeologists and anthropologists who attempted to replicate the lost process. Accounts of these experiments steered Sauder during the first years of his own exploration, begun in 1998 with his "partner in alchemy," Skip Williams. Sauder appears to have been guided as well by the spiritual and ritualized approach to bloomery smelting that characterized the process in Africa .

Nyamakala 11, 2001
bloom iron 35 x 11 "
Photo: Ellen Martin


Nyamakala 11, (detail) 2001
Photo: Ellen Martin

Sauder says poetically, "Iron is the most plentiful metal on this planet we are standing on a big iron ball. Yet it never exists in pure metallic form out here on the earth's surface, except when it falls from the stars." Short of chasing meteors, Sauder has contented himself with gathering pieces of discarded iron ore from abandoned mines. Given that Lexington is on the fringe of mining country, finding an abandoned local mine is not as far-fetched as it may seem; it is certainly more reliable than finding a meteorite. Like a painter who seeks to create original colors by grinding natural pigments from stone, Sauder begins to make sculpture by searching for minerals in the raw. Less poetic is the thought of Sauder and Williams hiking into an old mine and hauling out ore in backpacks. These large pieces of "found" iron ore are broken into smaller bits, and any initial impurities that can be removed ire tossed aside. But the iron that remains is still chemically bound to other geological materials; indeed, the bloomery process is a method of extracting pure iron from a heterogeneous mineral mixture. Sauder has written an educational "how-to" paper, humorously titled "Iron from Scratch" detailing the six-hour process of making a "bloom," which he hands out at his demonstrations and workshops.

Why would an artist in the twenty-first century want to spend so much time at a precursory stage of production, when raw materials can be readily purchased? Steel rods come in practically any shape, length, or width and are available throughout the country. Sauder explains his rationale- "All modern ironwork shares starting points provided by industry preformed round liars, square bars, flat bars, and plates of homogeneous steel. In contrast, the amorphous sponge of iron created by the bloomery process has as much character as finely figured wood or stone. Each bloom from try furnace is unique in its size, shape, density, chemical composition, and forging properties. In rediscovering and using the bloomery process, I've come to know iron, not in us guise as a preformed industrial material, hot to see its true face as a natural material."

Nyamakala 13, 2002
bloom iron, bronze
28 x 3 x 3 3/4 "
Photo: Ellen Martin


Nyamakala 13, (detail) 2002
Photo: Ellen Martin

The idea that there is a natural state of metal, a primal starting point, appeals to Sauder. Here his work follows the dictum of John Ruskin, who formulated the basis for the English Arts and Crafts movement in the mid-nineteenth century, proposing that artists ensure a "truth to material." [1] Sauder also makes "iron from scratch" because he feels a personal responsibility, as an artist and as a craftsman, to absorb as much metallurgical information as possible and to know all there is to know about his material. The organic and somewhat idiosyncratic quality of raw iron in its natural state contributes greatly to the aesthetics of Sauder's sculpture. For the "Nyamakala" series, Sauder drew on the West African word and its power to guide and manipulate this willful material. Nyamakala, loosely translated, means "soul handle," and refers to people who have the skill to shape the life force, most notably blacksmiths, musicians, and hunters.

The "Nyamakala" series features graceful, fanshaped, upright pieces gingerly balanced on tapered stems. Thick at the center, the metal is hammered outward, thinning to ragged edges. The raw, organic quality that characterizes "pure" iron is best observed at the work's outer edge; such a quality could not have emerged from preformed industrial material. It is here, at the margins, that the interface of Nature and material meet the artist's own hand.

Even in Sauder's somewhat representational pieces, Nature asserts a certain control over the artist's process. A primal presence is evident in a rounded, hammered head atop Nyamakala 13, a highly textured sword displayed upright on its tip; its hollow-eyed stare causes it to appear like a skull- Its other facial features are rugged, almost abstract. They appear rough hewn, a first draft. Acidness eyes, block nose, and angular chin contribute to a primitive appearance, alluding to the possibility that the bead is an ancient artifact. Seemingly mummified by centuries of burial or dulled by primitive practices of fetish worship, does the sword possess magic? The mystery of its age gives the head a somewhat menacing gaze. Should it be tested or is this an instrument of protection? This implied primal state in Sauder's work transports the viewer into the alchemist's realm, and allows one to participate in what seems to be the ritual initiation of a secret society.

"The feeding and firing of the furnacelike all my artwork -- is akin to playing improvised music; it consists of an exhausting and exhilarating succession of rapid decision and reaction," says Sauder. "For all this long, hot day, we live in a magical world of flashing sparks, pirouetting flames, and flowing molten rock." Sauder joins an ancient fraternity of craftsmen, the earliest of whom developed a transmute base elements while Dot into gold-into useful implements, which in many cases were more critical to the survival of their nascent cultures than gold itself. Transmutation-the transformation of material via process-has long been celebrated in myth and song for its capacity to harness natural elements for human use. It was the artisan who had the ability to control the mysterious transformation, interacting with the stuff of life to perform the earliest alchemical experiments.

Untitled (pyroprint),
2001 seared paper
30 x 22"
Photo: Ellen Martin

The found metal mix recovered by Sauder and his modern-day alchemists is heated in a furnace of the artist's design, to separate the iron to form "list is referred to as a "bloom." Over a long day of up to twelve hours, Sauder and Williams finally release the bloom from the found ore. To the untrained eye, the bloom doesn't look much different than the rock that went into the furnace twelve hours earlier; nevertheless, Sauder and Williams examine every crevice and surface for impurities and texture. Each variant present in the bloom provides an aesthetic starting point for a new work.

After cooling, Sauder begins "the adventure of coaxing a sculpture from the bloom." The amorphous shape is heated in a forge; when it approaches white heat, it is pounded into a rough shape. After long hours of preparatory work, Sauder begins to shape the iron at a level that would be considered the starting point for other smiths. Working organically and retaining what he can of the "magical world" of the smelting process, Sauder is guided by restraint. He does not attempt to impose his will over the work; instead, he explains that he wants the "true face" of the bloom to show through. The results of Sauder's experimental process are recorded in the object; it is tangible proof of success or failure on the part of the maker. Bringing all of the tools of the blacksmith's trade to bear on the metal, the final sculpture is "hammered to its home."

Nyamakala 10, 2001
bloom iron
41 x 14 1/2 "
Photo: Ellen Martin

The evidence-or lack thereof -- of the artist's hand is clear in looking at a number of Sauder's finished pieces. Famed outward, each sculpture exposes the character of the individual bloom, and it is here, looking at die finished works, where "bloom" appears to be a descriptive term. Like angels with outstretched wings, many of Souder's sculptures look as if they have bloomed outward from a stem of iron. Nyamakala 2 is at once human-like and totem-like. As a crowned Cleopatra, she is regal and forthright; as a totem it recalls an ancient labrys, the double-headed ax found in prehistoric matriarchal communities. The three-part "crown" impressed at the apex of the piece reveals Sauder's subtle and refined handling of the material. Likewise, at its nether end, an almost imperceptible curve imparts a certain grace, the way the S-curve of a contraposto pose added a vitality to Renaissance sculpture.

Sauder's pyro-prints are an extension of the metal artist's high-touch approach. Fresh from the flame and weight of the bummer, still-warm metal is laid flat over a sheet of paper. The hot metal immediately scars the paper, burning an indelible print. These sepia-toned shapes play to the eye and the intellect. In one untitled pyro-print the fan shape first appears as a formless shadow; yet in an instant the mind recalls the three-dimensional sculpture from which it was made. in a deeper recess of memory, the mind fills out the form like an image-generating CAD program. The close touch of metal upon paper feels intimate, especially if one considers heat as an artistic sexual metaphor. Sauder's pyro-prints are clear examples of the object as document, for every mark left by the artist is a record of a decision made and an action taken by the hands that formed it.

The sculpture Nyamakala 9: Gash makes clear that the artist's intent is to collaborate with nature rather than control it. The parameter of the vessel form is traditional: a flared shoulder tapering to a tall graceful neck gives Nyamakala 9: Gash the appearance of an urn. But the body of the vessel wears the mark of the bloom, opening like an earthen fissure and revealing a paradox of emptiness: a container that cannot contain. As such, Sauder's work is full of contradictions emblematic of contemporary life.

Nyamakala 12 Alberto's Woodlot, 2002
bloom iron
26 x 12 x 9 "
Photo: Ellen Martin

Physicist Cyril Smith, in his essay "Metallurgical Footnotes to the History of Art," wrote that, historically, technological modification of materials appeared "first in decorative objects, rather than in tools or weapons necessary for survival." [2] His conclusion goes against the grain of contemporary thinking, which would ascribe "technology" to the province of the science laboratory rather than the artist's studio. In support of Smith's hypothesis, Sauder has gone to a great deal of effort to discover-or rather recover-a traditional technology all but lost to the twentieth century. First experimenting and then documenting their findings, Sauder and Williams have submitted die results of their research to journals such as Historical Metallurgy and Materials Research Society. Their contributions to the field embrace the multiple dimensions of object-making.

Sauder's oeuvre embraces more than sculpture; indeed, the artist simultaneously creates three generations of objects. Sauder first makes the bloom, seeking qualities of shape, surface, and texture that will be refined by skill. His sculptures are the second generation of the aesthetic experience, made by using techniques and tools appropriate to contemporary metalsmithing. Going a step further than most artists, Sauder is then able to create a third generation of the same piece, by transforming its three-dimensional quality into a twodimensional "print." Thus invested in the work, Lee Sauder makes the most of the aesthetic experience. While that may mean that he has put an inordinate amount of time into his art, the results speak for themselves in the quality and refinement of the finished pieces.

Anna Fariello, a curator and writer, is director of curatorial InSight, based in Christiansburg , Virginia.

[1] The American Studio Craft movement interpreted John Ruskin's writings as proposing "truth to materials," " exposed construction," and the inherent value of "honest" handwork. Ruskin outlined these, and other hallmarks of craftsmanship, in his early treatise Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849 ( New York : Merrill & Baker), p. 39

.[2] Cyril Stanley Smith, "Metallurgical Footnotes to the History of Art," in Search for Structure (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1981)
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