Bending beams of steel: Artist trades in paint for metal

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

Meet Lisa Rickey: She's 52, divorced, and has two sons. Her hobbies include traveling and painting. She also enjoys bending 80-pound, 8-foot-long bars of steel.

A longtime Juneau-area artist, Rickey used to prefer painting abstracts with oils. Now, she works exclusively with metal. On her way to an undergraduate degree in liberal arts at the University of Alaska Southeast, Rickey is building a 12-foot high, 1,000-pound steel sculpture as a special project.

"I'm just more comfortable in this medium (than with paint)," Rickey said, standing in the metal shop at the university's Marine Technology Center, covered with a black layer of metal dust. "I just became fascinated with it. A friend of mine was an architect and builder. I started noticing I-beams and their wonderful strength. I had to learn welding."

Rickey is working on a sculpture of a Mobius strip, or a twisted, circular band of metal meant to represent the concept of limitlessness. A simpler example of a Mbius strip is the symbol for infinity. When Rickey finishes, a person will be able to run a hand around the curvy bar without interruption. The stiff metal strip will be shaped until it is round and fluid-looking.

"I really like how you can take this masculine material and turn it into a feminine form," Rickey said.

Rickey has created several large sculptures from metal. One is on loan to UAS. Another, made of steel bars bent to look like giant blades of grass curving in the wind, sold to a Juneau resident who installed it on an Auke Bay front yard.

To learn to work with metal, Rickey had to take welding classes in which often she was the only woman. Now she is building her sculpture in a metal shop among men building tool boxes and boat trailers. Though some shop regulars think her project is strange, others have been supportive, watching the process with interest, she said.

The most difficult thing about the metal work is the strength required to maneuver it, Rickey said.

"And I have the bruises to prove it," she said.

The bars weigh 80 pounds, more than half of Rickey's weight. To shape them, she must lift the bars and feed them repeatedly through what looks like a giant pasta maker composed of two enormous rollers. Then the pieces are hoisted with a ceiling crane, clamped in place and welded together. The welding flare is blinding, and Rickey wears a special mask to allow her to see her job without injuring her eyes. Once the pieces are welded in place, she uses a spinning disk-shaped grinder to smooth the metal. When she touches the grinder to the steel, she kicks up a 12-foot spray of sparks.

To attach the higher parts of her sculpture, Rickey has waited for hours for a taller, stronger person to show up at the shop to help her move the metal into place.

"Sometimes I just can't handle this stuff," Rickey said. "If I had an 'Igor' (male servant) it would be great," she joked.

Recently, Rickey was in the process of adjusting a curved piece of steel to the top of her sculpture when it came loose and fell.

"Thank God no one was underneath it," she said. " I have had a couple things land on my head."

Unlike paintings, Rickey's art is meant to be outdoors in public spaces, which means she has to take some special considerations into account.

"I'd never really thought, 'Are children going to climb on this and break their legs?' before," Rickey said.

Rickey expects to finish her project in a month, after which she may try to find a buyer. She hopes to sell it for at least $5,000.

"I couldn't take any less, it is just too much work," she said.

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