Arts & Culture

At Steel Yard, cooking up sculptures at 6,000 degrees

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Sunday, September 20, 2009

A screaming came across the sky. It was the circular saw’s squeal, settling into a ragged, mechanical snarl as it sliced through a steel rod, sending off a jet of orange sparks. There was the clank of metal hitting metal, the thud of a rusty gear dropped to the ground, the rattle of chicken wire and the bang of hammer on anvil. And there was the static buzz of the welding torch, muffled behind a canvas screen.

Local artist Monica Shinn, wearing a heavy welding jacket over her loose work clothes, wriggled one hand into a thick glove while, with the other hand, she sliced through sheet metal with an oxyacetylene torch — 6,000 degrees in a pinpoint of acid-blue flame.

With twenty minutes remaining until judging, Shinn was trying to lead her four-person team to victory in the third and final round of the Iron Chef fundraiser, a head-to-head sculpture competition at the Steel Yard on Saturday.

A few feet away from Shinn, sculptor David Cole, her counterpart on the other team, rummaged through the “pantry” for metal domes.

The Iron Chef, now in its second year, gets both its vocabulary and its structure from cooking shows. Contestants have five minutes to plan and forty minutes to execute a metal sculpture based on a given design theme and a “secret ingredient.” Between the two teams’ workspaces was a “pantry” of materials laid out on the ground: empty gas cylinders caked with rust, slices of chain link fence, giant mooring chains, an old anchor and piles of bolts, chains, gears, wire and steel, lots of steel.

“We’re really good at collecting stuff,” said Dave Sharp, the Steel Yard’s program director, as he surveyed the pantry before the competition began. Much of the material was just scrap, but the newer steel bars and sheet metal came from regional suppliers, whose donations go to the Steel Yard’s youth programs and its public events, like Iron Chef.

The Steel Yard has been around since 2001, when its parent company, the Woonasquatucket Valley Community Build — founded by Clay Rockefeller ’03 and industrial arts teacher Nick Bauta — began offering training and studio time on a defunct manufacturing property in Providence’s Industrial Valley neighborhood.

Once the home of the Providence Steel and Iron Company, the site is a three-acre dirt lot lined by the old building’s stripped skeleton, rows of giant beams and girders. The Steel Yard is involved in a project to cover the lead-contaminated ground with a new layer of topsoil, making the space safer and allowing plants to grow.

“It’s never going to be pretty like somebody’s yard,” explained Brian Dowling, the Steel Yard’s shop manager. “It’s always going to have this burly quality to it.”

The Iron Chef crowd, which peaked around 100 people, had shrunk to around 50 by the competition’s fifth hour. Among those left were Ariel Schecter ‘10.5 and Lee Corley, shading their eyes from the setting sun with a small black parasol. Their team, led by artist Anna Shapiro, had been eliminated in the second round, though only after Shapiro lost to Cole in a one-on-one, ten-minute tiebreaker.

Schecter, an engineering and visual arts concentrator, became interested in metalworking after studying it at the Rhode Island School of Design one semester. He started working at the Steel Yard as a studio monitor and helping out with public projects. He had been a teaching assistant under Shinn, whose team was welding that round’s “secret ingredient” — 20 steel rings, each about 18 inches in diamater — into a hanging sculpture.

Born and raised in Providence, Corley now teaches classes at the Steel Yard and works for the city, fabricating bike racks.

“I used to design and make jewelry,” she said, “but it’s just too fragile and prissy.”
Pawtucket resident Marguerite Pile sat nearby with her 14-year-old standard poodle, Oscar. Like many in the crowd, she was one of Shinn’s former Steel Yard students.

Pile’s father had owned a manufacturing company, so she had always felt close to mechanical work, she said. Once a consultant, but now an artist, Pile said she took Shinn’s welding course. “It got me to decide that I really wanted to do sculptural stuff,” she said.

Pile said what keeps her coming back to the Steel Yard is the way it brings people of different ages together. “It fosters community,” she explained. “It’s very freeing.”

Looking on from the sidelines was Daniel Mejia-Onat, a business systems analyst and local league rugby player. An “artisan-homeowner,” he had started coming to the Steel Yard to use equipment he couldn’t get elsewhere.

Mejia-Onat said the Steel Yard wasn’t just for people who work primarily as artists. “I’m trying to keep up and make a good home,” he explained. “For me, this is just as important a resource.”

With seven minutes remaining in the round, David Cole’s “apprentice” from Camp Metalhead — the Steel Yard’s summer youth program — was using a grinder to smooth out the base for a rotating, angled dish. In response to the design theme, “waxing and waning,” Cole’s team had threaded the steel rings through each other to produce spheres of differing fullness, like the cycles of the moon. The dish was supposed to represent the sun, and Cole — a showman with a penchant for playing with fire, and winner of last year’s Iron Chef — was tearing apart planks of wood from the pantry to burn in what was going to become an elaborate fire pit.

Shinn’s team had taken a more abstract route, latticing the rings and welding them together into flat rhizomes to produce a hanging sculpture.

When time ran out, the judges — two local artists and an arts organizer — came down from their platform, wearing paper toques (otherwise known as the hats chefs wear), to inspect the sculptures. Explaining her team’s piece, Shinn said — with a gentle nudge to Cole’s maximalism — that she “wanted to do something with just these materials.” They had edited a decorative sheet metal spiral out of their design to focus attention on the steel rings.

But, in the end, it was Cole’s piece that won out. The teams exchanged hugs and high-fives as Sharp began auctioning off all the day’s sculptures to the remaining spectators.

Standing near the back was Jesse Riley, Cole’s “apprentice.” He had started taking classes at the Steel Yard at the urging of his older brother and had volunteered to compete in Iron Chef, which happened to fall on his nineteenth birthday.

“I fell in love with this place,” he said. “It teaches you to think in abstract ways, think on your feet, do whatever you can to make a piece come together.”