PONTOTOC – A piece of metal can’t be turned into a flower, according to metal artist Harrison Caldwell. The finished piece will always fail when compared to its inspiration.
He makes flowers out of copper and steel, so he ought to know.
He’s taken pictures in his wife’s garden and taped them to walls in his workshop.
He’s sat in that garden and studied those photographs, following the advice of Vincent van Gogh: “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you deeper meaning.”
“You can’t make it exactly right. You just can’t. But when you’re done, you want people to say, ‘Hey, that’s a cotton plant. That’s it,’” Caldwell said. “You can’t do it exactly, but you can evoke the idea of it.”
If perfection isn’t possible, the Pontotoc resident wants to see how close he can get. His cotton plant bears that out.
Caldwell was at an art show in Oxford when a woman said, “Do you do cotton?”
He got to thinking, How would I do cotton?
The first job was to get up-close and personal with his subject, which wasn’t as easy as one might expect for a Mississippi-based artist.
“So much is treated with herbicides, and the leaves get stripped,” he said.
His wife, June Caldwell, said, “We had to trespass on some good land in Houlka to find it. I don’t think they would’ve minded, but you never know.”
A copper cotton boll was a relatively quick creation, but the cotton blossom proved vexing. Weeks and months turned into years.
“It took two or three years. It sat around here,” he said, waving his arm around his backyard workshop. “I finally got an idea for the tools I’d need. I had the idea, and now it’s hanging in an orthodontist’s office in Pearl.”
Caldwell, 67, spent his working life in engineering and manufacturing. At various times, he was involved in the production of ships, paper and automotive springs.
In the late 1990s, it became clear he and his wife needed a new pastime. Kayaking was losing its thrill, or maybe it offered too many thrills.
“June said she was tired of being upside down in the water,” Caldwell said.
He’d worked with metal during his professional life, and fondly remembered the blacksmith shops that were still in operation when he was a kid. In 1998, Caldwell attended the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.
“They have the best blacksmith instructors and facilities east of the Mississippi River. We’ve gone up there 15 or so times,” he said. “There’s always stuff to learn. You learn the basics and you realize there are things you don’t know, so you have to go back.”
He’s got a coal forge and a gas forge at his workshop, and he’s created a treadle hammer and other tools.
“June said it’s gear lust, but it’s not,” he said. “You need to have certain tools.”
“You don’t have one hammer, you have a rack of hammers,” she said. “You don’t have one set of tongs, you have 20.”
“They hold different things,” he protested.
June Caldwell was having fun at her husband’s expense. She’s an artist herself, and she knows that having the right tool is crucial to getting the job right, if not perfect.
“He has to make a lot of his tools,” she said. “He can’t find them at a hardware store.”
He’s made clamps and stamps, as well as grooves to help mimic the tapered ends of iris buds.
When making a prototype of a new piece, he follows Van Gogh’s advice by studying his subject until he knows how the finished product should look, then he must figure out how to turn that look into reality. Daffodil leaves are just so. An iris is a light and delicate thing easily twisted by the wind.
“When I’m done,” he said, “I want them to look like you’ve just picked them.”
Caldwell is mostly focused on copper these days, though he also works with steel.
“From what I’m hearing from the galleries, copper is more eye-catching,” he said.
The Caldwells use scrap metal when they can. Roofers drop off their cast-offs, and friends have donated old copper pipes. They go to a metal dealer for the big pieces.
“Even the new copper doesn’t get wasted,” June Caldwell, 62, said. “I take the surplus and make jewelry. Periodically, he’ll find a weird piece of metal and he’ll say, ‘Here’s a strange piece of copper. Can you do something with it?’”
She enamels some of her husband’s projects. He’s also become adept at adding patina to copper roses and daylillies. Heat from an acetylene torch brings pinks and purples out of the metal.
“The colors comes from the amount of heat you apply,” he said, bent over a flame.
“He makes it look easy. It’s not,” June Caldwell added. “If you do it more than a second or two, it turns black.”
He makes “canvases” out of sheet metal, and positions the finished pieces so they stick out from the gray metal. He also has flowers that seem to grow out of rocks.
“I want something that looks as good in the dining room as it does on the porch,” he said.
Once he has a prototype finished, he’ll work on a series of pieces. He went on a koi kick last year and took his wife to Mount Fuji in Tupelo to study the fish at the restaurant’s pond. Now, he’s focused on flowers from her garden.
There’s always a new prototype to be made because he gets bored easily. He also wants customers to know they’re getting one-of-a-kind pieces.
“I change what I’m doing,” he said, “because it’s hard to make something exactly the same. Second, you just want to make something different.”
Caldwell’s work is carried by the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis. He’s sold pieces for as much as $3,800, and others have gone for $150, depending on size and intricacy.
They consider Caldwell Forge & Enamel a business, and they’ve spent the past eight years building a reputation. Caldwell has been told it takes about 10 years of good, solid effort before art collectors start to seek you out.
“They want to know you’ll be around,” he said. “You want to get to where a number of people say, ‘I know who you are. I’ve seen some of your stuff. I want to talk to you about a commission.’”
Toward that end, Caldwell works his metal from midmorning until 6 or 7 p.m. He occasionally misses dinner when he’s involved in a project, trying to get as close to perfection as his homemade tools allow.
On The Web
TO LEARN MORE about Harrison Caldwell’s metal art and June Caldwell’s handmade jewelry, visit www.caldwellforge.com.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal