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Outfitted in his class’ de rigueur uniform of rugged jacket, blue jeans, heavy gloves, and work boots, Jonathan Talit gives a curt jerk of his head to lower the visor on his Darth Vader helmet. Holding a bit of steel in place against the sculpture he’s working on—ocean waves depicted with squiggly metal legs—Talit (CFA’14) touches the bit with his slender welding gun, tethered to a tank of carbon dioxide.
The torch tip bursts to life, its blue arc, too blinding to view directly with the naked eye, hurling fountains of orange sparks five feet in all directions. A micro–meteor shower soars over Talit’s head and out to his sides, as a crackling sound like electricity joins the loud hum of the exhaust system that vacuums fumes from his work site, its suction not fully scrubbing the slight musty smell from the room.
At another table, Hollister Fitch (CFA’15) pounds metal on an old-fashioned anvil for a metallic bust of himself. This workshop, on the third floor of the 808 Gallery, is an all-you-can-eat buffet of sensations—not just hands-on learning, but eyes-on, ears-on, and nostrils-on.
This College of Fine Arts class doesn’t certify students for manufacturing welding, but rather teaches them how to sculpt with metal—“welding as art solamente,” says CFA lecturer Katharine Wales (CFA’80,’82), who has taught the course off and on for 10 years and also teaches traditional sculpting.
Meeting in the welding shop, the twice-a-week class can accommodate eight students and fills up every semester. While it’s open to all students, CFA majors needing to fulfill a sculpture requirement get first dibs. The popularity of the class doesn’t surprise Wales.
“It’s very expressive,” she says. “It’s like drawing, three-dimensional drawing in space. You can use thick and thin lines, you can use plate, you can color it.…You can put something together really fast. If you don’t like it, you can cut it off, you can put it back on again. It’s very forgiving, it’s very immediate, it’s very spontaneous. You don’t have to wait for glue to dry, you don’t have to laminate.”
It’s also a medium that takes some getting used to. The helmets all but blind wearers until the blue arc of their torches illuminates their work, and standing near red-hot sparks might give one pause about one’s choice of electives. It takes several weeks, Wales says, before students learn such artistic necessities as remembering to breathe (nervousness about heat and fire can wipe this from memory).
Another tip: “You obviously don’t want to touch very, very hot things with your bare hands,” painting major Tiffany Ramos (CFA’15) advises. It was the novelty of welding that drew her to the class. Now, “I love it. I got to do things I never thought I’d do,” she says, citing a recent project welding a series of abstract torsos. She had done some nonmetal sculpting, but “this is definitely very different, ’cause you have to wear a lot of gear.”
Fellow painting major Fitch was intrigued about trying an art that has the permanence of metal. “A lot of the sculpture we’ve done has been in cardboard or clay or general materials that will fall apart after a while.” (Clay lasts, “if you don’t drop it,” he notes.) Welding has “a sensuality to it, and there are so few limitations. You don’t have to worry so much about the whole thing toppling over.…It has structural integrity, and it will hold itself up.”
The class taps his painter’s skills; he sketches out many versions of his bust as he marries metal with metal. It also taught him something he’ll carry into his career: “Sculpture’s always relevant. The way you have to think about building up a wire form or a steel form helps you in how you think about, how do I paint a 3-D form and make it feel like it occupies space.”
Wales, who has her own welding studios in Massachusetts and Maine, says that her goal is to convey the joys of producing art in this medium. And only 20 miles from Boston, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, Mass., has 35 acres of outdoor sculptures, where visitors can see what welding has wrought.