1621 Noise, heat, smoke, & smell
Out of the Fire: Metalworkers along the Salish Sea
by Pirjo Raits. Photographs by Dale Roth and Michele Ramberg
Victoria: Heritage House, 2022
$39.95 / 9781772033434
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
The cover image of a book entitled Out of the Fire might be expected to be aflame with oranges and red. Not this one: even the key word “Fire,” dominating the cover, is in a muted, but rich ochre and set against a dark, shadow-veined view of a man at a black anvil, his clothes and down-tilted hat equally dark. Brightly illuminated are only three key elements: the fire, barely glimpsed on the side, a white hot iron being hammered, and, above all, in the very centre of the image, partially bare arms and hands.
The cover matters. Indeed, as a kind of “coffee table book” in characteristic landscape format, Out of the Fire: Metalworkers along the Salish Sea for most will chiefly have a primarily visual impact. Further, they are likely to find that, like the handling of colour on the cover, virtually everything about the book smacks of the unconventional.
Not only are some of the (matte) photographs in black and white, but those in colour are almost all deeply cast in rich, brown shadows with only the dim gleam of metal barely illuminated: think Rembrandt. Some pages, even double pages, show nothing but tools, sometimes a single hammer, for example, sometimes clustered arrays of tools — or even just a pair of hands. Those that show the metal workers often record them bent over their work, their faces and occasionally all but their hands invisible. When posed, the men and women photographed are surrounded by the evocative clutter of a dark workshop interior. Yet far from being permeated with gloom, the images, in total, give a sense of warmth and poise, the faces generally smiling and quietly purposeful.
To these images are added two other main kinds of images: first, the workshop itself, even the exteriors looking exactly what we might expect of a workshop, and, second, samples of the created works. “Samples,” however, is the key word: those who expect a kind of catalogue of artistic images will be surprised. Most of the creators are represented by only a very few finished works. Readers leave the book feeling they have been immersed in the very process of creation, its sources in the artists’ materials, in the tools, and in the metal workers’ sensibilities.
Complementing the photographs is their arrangement on the page. It is hard to imagine a book of photographs with as much variety and nuance in the way they are presented. One page might have four equal-sized images with white borders, another a broad band of white on a margin with a single large image covering the rest of the page and spreading part way into the adjoining page. Some of the most effective pages contain a pair of borderless images on opposing pages; others a single, small image offset to one side of an otherwise blank page. The effect is, almost ironically, to make the visual impact of the book as much about its creative framing of photographs and its creative use of cropping, focus and lighting in the photographs, as about the creativity being photographed. As in the best creativity, form mirrors content.
This memorable visual impact results from the skills of many. While Dale Roth and Michele Ramberg, as the photographers, are most fundamental, important to the final appearance too are Rachel Bauman, Lara Minja, and “Geoff” (identified only by his first name.)
Balancing the imagery, of course, is the writing. This is where author Pirjo Raits makes her own distinct stamp on the project. Like the photographs, the writing prioritizes variety. Most basic is the variety in the subjects themselves. As we read in the Introduction, “The twenty-four people featured…were not selected by jury, but rather chosen carefully by the author and photographers based on location, reputation, artistic merit, passion, and quality of work. Although they are a small portion of the total number of metalworkers living and working [here]…they are representative of the amazing depth and breadth of talent found in this region.” Further, they reflect “cultural, geographical and regional diversity.” Probably wisely, however, the actual process of selecting these twenty-four is left unspecified. One can imagine at least a little heartache and indecision.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the large majority of the subjects are male, and, except for one Indigenous artist, all are white: that, in itself, says something about the social role of metalworking in this area. While it is true many of the approaches to creativity have similarities, there is huge variety in the ways in which these metalworkers came to their roles. Two, strikingly, suffered motorcycle accidents. Some studied art, gradually finding metal to be their favoured medium. Some had been working in metal in their jobs, even industrially (like Seth Cosmo Burton), before finally risking everything to become artists in metal. (Although the author says only a little about the financial viability of being a metal artist, most — not all — of those in this book seem to be more than marginally successful, some clearly selling primarily to well-healed customers.)
Raits does not produce a sequence of shaped written pieces, each following the same sequence of topics; instead, she accompanies the images with a kind of breezy, open gathering of notes, observations, biographical information, impressions, and quotations from the creators. She makes no attempt to perform the role of the social scientist on her subjects by observing patterns, making comparisons, or aspiring to generalizations. Each entry can easily be read independently from the others and in any sequence. Still, a reader cannot help but be struck by recurring elements in what the author has selected for her portraits.
In any treatment of a medium that can have practical applications, the thorny issue of craft versus art can raise its problematic head. Not here, however — or, at least, only implicitly. The author steers well clear of the issue, though, significantly, amongst the most commonly used words in the text are “artist,” “inspiration,” “nature,” and “creativity.” It is true many of the metal workers make functional items — knives, cookware, viewing platforms, and even horseshoes. Many, however, explicitly produce work that is entirely “artistic,” without the least practical purpose. Especially striking is the fact that amongst the words Raits uses most are “whimsy” and “whimsical.” Go to the average painting show in this region and almost certainly you will see only a few attempts to go beyond scenery and flowers (and possibly realistically detailed animals and vehicles.) Imagine a representative selection of the creators here, however, and expect astounding flights of imagination. It seems almost ironic that a medium most stereotypically considered earthbound produces creators whose works so often take flight.
No doubt, the most direct way into the sensibility of the creators is provided by looking at the works themselves. However, Raits provides two other conduits — first, her own interpretations and impressions and, second, the words of the artists themselves.
Although she only occasionally goes very far in attempting to put into words what the created pieces put into space, some of the artists seem especially to stir her to respond subjectively. Of the figure sculptures of Miran Elbakyan, for example, she writes, “His figures are not dreary or morose; they capture a whimsical, idyllic world where humour is central to the theme and figures are exuberant in their actions. One is reminded of Cirque du Soleil acrobats and French street performers in the lively intensity of movement in Elbakyan’s sculptures.” Similarly, of Jake James she writes, “His swirling, writhing organic shapes are aesthetically pleasing yet retain the honesty of their origins.” Striking in both of these examples, of course, is the powerfully personal element of her writing. Elbakyan’s figures, in her eyes, produce “lively intensity;” likewise, she feels James’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” but demonstrate “honesty.” Of course, while some viewers might respond to the works differently, it is Raits’ attempts to enter imaginatively into the aesthetic impact of the works that take much of the writing in the book far beyond pure information-giving.
Some other examples demonstrate this aspect of the book even more clearly. In describing the work of Dwayne Farmer, Raits writes, “What Farmer creates are vases that look like a tubular coral structure, with uneven sides and textured surfaces. While they may look primitive, they are complex and exacting in their construction.” She responds even more intensely to Peter McFarlane’s sculptures: “you can’t help but be drawn in to the cerebral, emotional experience McFarlane has given the viewer.” At other points, she links her response to a more analytical sense of the kind of impact the artist makes. Of Trinita Waller’s sculptures of female figures, for example, she writes they “can best be described as minimalist, with the power of suggestion being the essence of the piece.”
The second conduit to getting inside the creativity of these artists is interviews. Sometimes Raits quotes directly, usually only a sentence or two at a time. Sometimes she (or the layout designer, Lara Minja) doubles the impact of these by having them appear both in the text and as separate, highlighted entries in the borders above the main text. When not quoting directly the author produces much the effect of direct quotation by providing coloured and colourful interpretations of the metalworkers’ thoughts and feelings.
Unsurprisingly, for many of them, the very substance of their creativity, metal, is central to their thoughts. “I like working with steel,” says Brian “Raz” Ashton, “it is a very forgiving medium to work with.” Unlike one of her fellow metalworkers, who “loves the permanence of metal and the challenge of the material,” Nycki Samuels feels, “Metal has memory; it is living and constantly changing.” Alvaro Sanchez says something similar: “I love to feel the metal changing in my hands,” he says. Jeri Sparshu goes so far as to find that “Working with metal is fascinating … because of the way steel is like modelling clay when it is hot.”
Strikingly, though, a large number of these creators find their material in discarded and abandoned metal objects, among them Mary and Justin Gilbertson, Gregory Kozak, Karen Lancey, Peter McFarlane, Carl Sean McMahon and Nycki Samuels.
What they actually do with their medium, and how they feel about the creative energy that guides them, however, are, in Raits’ written version, as variable as the results. Interestingly, the notion of “self-expression” so common amongst artists, whether painters, dancers, or musicians, doesn’t seem to drive these twenty-four. Dwayne Farmer, for one, “doesn’t get too philosophical about art.” Nevertheless, he does go so far as to admit “it represents a feeling—and is therapeutic.” For Kelly Backs, “Noise, heat, smoke and smell have been the elemental sources of inspiration….” Seth Cosmo Burton, however, says “It’s about perseverance and a bit of passion and craziness.”
Bev Petow goes the furthest, though, in analyzing the ways in which she sees her art. Not many of the others would seem to cast a web of ideas and principles around her work as much as she does. “She sees her process as a balance of construction and deconstruction, integration and decay, elements that are constantly co-creating the world,” notes Raits. And in Petow’s own words, “All of my work is spiritual in nature. It is healing, medicinal and meditative. I pull a lot of inspiration from the divine imagination.”
Two, in contrast, are striking for the emphasis they put on a social purpose behind their work. Ts’uts’umutil Luke Marston recalls being stirred to realize from a bentwood box he was commissioned to create for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that it was an example of “art used as a vehicle to heal, especially Elders.” Peter McFarlane comes to the issue from an entirely different angle, but with an even stronger sense of purpose. Determined as he is to repurpose discarded metal, McFarlane sees himself as “a commentator on our dystopian society…. His work is a mirror of our excess, the frailty of our existence and the futility of the future.” In short, as Raits sees it, “they are powerful statements with a destructive environmental theme, a hopelessness.”
However much the author records the thoughts and feelings of subjects towards their own works, she also emphasizes how much dedication and sheer effort metal working requires. When Kelly Backs says how much of his work is “complex and arduous,” he states in one way what Jacob Burton does in another, speaking of a large piece being “puzzled together with sweat and blood and crow bars and big hammer strikes.” For Peter McFarlane, too, his projects are “very arduous and existential in process.” Raits records statement after statement from these men and women revealing that a work “can take months to complete,” or that a particular work “took three months to complete,” or even that “Large scale exterior pieces can take up to eight months to complete.”
In the deepest sense, then, readers of this book can experience one of the most telling effects of the best non-fiction: they can feel their eyes have been opened. Even if they retain only shadowy knowledge of some of the technical terms like “patination,” “cladded,” “maquette,” and “reticulation,” they will no doubt have gained a respect and appreciation for not just the medium of metal, not just for the people who are represented here, but for the makers of the book who have poured almost as much devotion into its creation as the men and women whose works and whose minds they illuminate.
As a companion piece to a former book by the same basic team, Out of the Woods: Woodworkers along the Salish Sea, Out of the Fire may just provoke interest in seeing similar treatments of some of the other artists and creators, in many different media.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the University of Victoria. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Vince Ditrich, Madeline Sonik, Alex Rose, Frances Peck, Naben Ruthnum, and Rowena Rae for The British Columbia Review. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay. Visit his website here.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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