Reaching into the Sublime
Although only mid-March, a quiet warmth had been pushing in, our sodden marsh was bloated with singing, and early that morning after having been alerted by their spousal honks, I watched long arcs of Sandhills on the wing fly toward Wisconsin. Our Danny Burr Hollow was alert with anticipation. The real chatter began late in the afternoon. It was a clatter of overlapping sharp and shrill calls. I had been working at the anvil for several hours on four elongated bulbous forms that were to resemble the dried okra pods from last year’s garden that I had stuck in a swage block for reference. My material was a 6” chunk of ¾” diameter steel rod into which I hammered a “shoulder” and created an all-around cradle-shape that was to be the spherical base of the pod. Then I pulled a gradual point on the end, tuned up its symmetry and texture, and finally drew down the length of the stem to 18” long. While this description sounds straight forward, in reality the process took many heats in the forge. Each heat must bring the material to a glowing yellow – about 2000 degrees – for me to be able to coax the unforgiving bar of hard steel between my hammer and anvil into any semblance of the form I was trying to achieve. The roaring forge had spit out so much heat that the temperature in the studio had risen to over 80 degrees. Laboring in long sleeves and a leather apron and gloves, I had to keep wiping the sweat off from around my eyes with my forearm to keep my glasses on my face, while still holding onto the tongs in one hand and the work piece in the other. But fast, everything needs to be done with dispatch – or you loose the heat.
Between the hammering sequences when the material was reheating in the fire, I heard the raucous banter, even through my OSHA certified earplugs. The shrill, staccato rhythm might have been a hawk had it been singular, but I couldn’t make out an individual voice. Hammering is aerobic and I was tired. Sweat in my eyes and my safety glasses sliding off my nose is status quo for a blacksmith, but when my arm won’t swing with the correct form – think swinging a bat – or I hit off mark, or I drop the tongs or worse the piece, I need to take a long break because safety is always a concern. Drinking a bottle of water, I can finally turn my attention to what I have been trying to ignore for the last hour: “kill-dear, kill-dear, kill-dear.” It is constant and jabbering. I smile and go to the glass garage-door to discover the source of the chatter and take time to examine the hollow. Long and deep, the view is my constant. In Wisconsin, I lived on a long lake and its sometimes flat, sometimes tempestuous plateau was what tied me to my sense of self, to my sense of place, to my place in this world. Having moved to Bloomington two years ago, Danny Burr Hollow has become my new grounding, my connection to the rest of everything. My studio is tucked into its west end. Down one long side is a meandering trickle of a creek – only a waterway when the spring flooding comes – that articulates the edge of the sedimentary limestone ridge. Along the other long border is a mature forest of massive cottonwoods and hickories giving way to a younger generation of beech and sycamores that harbors the yipping, howling coyotes and hooting owls at night. Beyond the pond are the neighbor’s six horses who routinely graze among the turkeys and deer. Throughout is an almost unfathomable variety of flora that I have only begun to discover, study and draw.
As I gaze out the window, I see right in the pathway to the studio door, three Killdeers scuttering about, kicking up dirt and chattering at each other. In a syncopated do-si-do, one would approach and step back, and then another would repeat in turn. Lost in watching their dance, I began to see the shapes between them, the negative space that expanded and contracted, virtually breathing with each repetition. Their wings were not rigid but swelled and bent with each gyration, their outline arced the same contour of the steel leaves I had curled into shape earlier in the day. I gathered my sketchbook and pencil and drew the arcs, the swelling, the breath. Shapes and marks were limned into relationships, spatial juxtapositions formed compositions, and cadence and inflection translated into pattern and rhythm.
Evening was approaching when I put down the sketchbook. The activity of the marsh became more sedate, its sounds grew guttural and closer to the ground, its cool coloration shifted into a warmed and luminous yellow ochre, and its playful character opened into that of a numinous vessel. That evening I only returned to the anvil to rest on it. At 200 pounds, its saddle-like shape provided plenty of space to perch and examine my work from the day. Tomorrow life will be put into these elements. I will heat and curve, arrange, structure, and weld the pods into the gestural arcs and forms that I had studied the day before and eventually, through trial and error, a sculpture will emerge.
Michal Ann Carley is an artist blacksmith and glass torchworker at her studio Luna Song Designs. She creates sculpture and architectural ornament by forging and fabricating steel and designs and creates jewelry of her glass beads. She is represented in Indiana by the Venue Gallery and Hoosier Artists Gallery. Formerly, she was a professor of art and art history and director and curator of university art museums. Carley will be one of forty-five artists who open their studios to the public for examination and conversation during the Bloomington Open Studios Tour 2015 on June 6th and 7th.