Three Chatham artists shape, twist and turn the steel medium to create custom designs.By Jacquelyn Mysliwiec | Photography by Michael and Suz Karchmer
Tucked back beside a fishing boatyard at the end of Enterprise Drive sits Faye Swenson’s studio workshop. Inside the quaint warehouse, an enormous piece of driftwood holds a large-scale steel octopus— its tentacles coiled around the wood’s weathered branches. It’s the centerpiece in a room filled with decorative and functional steel creations ranging from whimsical flower floor lamps to Southwestern-style steel-cut sunshine décor pieces. A variety of custom fireplace screens (one of her specialties) features landscape, dancing flame, mermaid and fish designs. There’s also a collection of fishing spears and diving gear that hardly goes unnoticed.
Swenson has been swimming with the fishes for most of her life — literally that is. From growing up in Chatham as a commercial fisherman’s daughter to becoming a free-dive spearfishing champion, it’s the underwater world that has become the inspiration for her award-winning Funktional Steel Art.
During the offseason, Swenson and her husband, a charter fisherman in Chatham, travel to Florida and other tropical areas of the globe to free-dive spearfish. It’s been a longtime hobby for the two — and a competitive one. Swenson has placed in multiple tournaments, taking third in the women’s national free-dive spearfishing championships in 2007. She has also served as president of the Massachusetts Freedivers Spearfishing Club for the past three years.
But it was long before her spearfishing career that she had been channeling her inner artist. When she left the Cape to attend school for architecture in Arizona over 10 years ago, it opened the artist’s eyes to an unrealized talent. When she began exploring different mediums, she landed in a sculpture class instructed by a metal artist. Her innate ability and interest in metal sculpture scored her an apprenticeship with her teacher in which she learned to weld, sculpt, and finish each steel design. She practiced by making earthy objects like suns, trees, lizards and flowers — typical to the Santa Fe style in the area. Today, you can still see the southwestern flair pop up in Swenson’s work as she toys around with spiral designs seen in her flowers and suns, both large and small scale, and often oxidized (a finish that gives the metal a weathered, sun-burnt look).
Combining this style with her influence of the ocean is what makes her artwork so unusual. From observing octopus underwater in Mexico, to swimming with fish as big as barracudas and as small as scup, she’s in tune with the life under the sea. “There’s not a lot of people who see these creatures up close the way I have,” says Swenson. “What I see is what I am inspired by.”
It’s impressive the large-scale outdoor showpieces she is able to create in her small space. Starting with a slab of steel, she sketches out the design then uses a wire brush, smoothly hand-cutting the intricate designs, as all her negative space has been thought out so her scrap cutout shapes can be used for another project.
Striped bass is the main game fish in spearfishing, and the star of some of her most cherished works. Like her tropical fish, she finishes the bass by hand-painting their multi-colored scales and letting the fins boast the shininess of the untouched steel which mimics the look of a bass’s silvery reflection.
Over 18 years now as a metal sculpture artist, Swenson’s work has placed in the top three in a variety of art shows around New England, including the Mystic Chamber of Commerce Art Show in Connecticut where she took first place in sculpture and best in show. And as a female welder, the respect she has earned in the welding world is equal to the gratification she gets out of designing and custom-creating each piece from start to finish.
Though Swenson has slowed down the last few years to focus on her family and spearfishing, Swenson will never stop taking in the beauty of nature and using it as inspiration in her art.
150 Enterprise Dr., Chatham
(appointments only), 508-843-2155,
Only a few blocks from her gallery in West Chatham, and not far from Hardings Beach, Julie Eldredge-Dykens treasures her daily strolls—taking in more than just the fresh seaside air.
Along the beach and on the side of the road is where Eldredge-Dykens scores star pieces for her metal artwork which decorates the walls in Local Color Art Gallery. Using found beaten-up metal and crushed soda cans and combining the weathered materials with driftwood and handmade ceramics, Eldredge-Dykens creates beautiful oceanic décor pieces— from tiny ceramic fish to crab ornaments made of scraps from other large sculptural pieces, like her giant swordfish.
“I’ve always been creative and loved doing stuff like this when I was a kid,” says the artist, who even collects metal scraps that fall off cars and rummages through junkyards to find beaten-up copper with beautiful green patina. “I shine it up a little with a big sander to get that nice shimmer like the fish.” Since her husband gave her an anvil for Christmas, the artist spends hours in her home studio cutting up her scrap metals and banging them with a hammer to create stripes that mimic the look of real fish fins.
As a college student, she spent summers shucking sea scallops on commercial fishing boats. It was here where the artist closely observed the local fish and sea life. At that time (in the late 70s), it was shocking that they even let women on the boat. After realizing that the college women and men were quite capable, they kept them on board to help out. “Then I started tuna fishing—those things were monsters,” says Eldredge-Dykens, with a laugh. “So, I’ve definitely had a lot experience observing different fish.”
Her giant swordfish décor pieces are comprised of crazy things like found sailboat parts, which make up the fish’s long bill, and water ski fins, in which the artist unscrewed and used as the back part of the fish before the tail begins. “I make the lateral lines out of copper wire,” explains Eldredge-Dykens. “The lateral line on a fish is important. They’re like a cat’s whiskers. It’s the way the fish communicate in a group.”
“All of my swordfish have had can bottoms that have been smoothed out from the waves, and the patina on them is so beautiful. To finish, I drill a hole in for the eyes, put a screw in to hold it on, and glue a beautiful white smooth round stone from the beach. The final product is my own beach tale.”
The beauty of all her creations come from the respect she has for the pieces she finds and the innovative way she presents them. Eldredge-Dykens’ assortment of garden sculptures are quite unique as well and include her cherished garden vanes—a mix between a weather vane and a garden ornament. “I have a local welder make a stand for me to attach all kinds of brightly colored fish that I have designed and created out of my scrap materials,” says the artist. “The oversize metal fins nicely catch the wind. It’s an ornament you can’t miss when passing by her quaint Chatham gallery.
Local Color Art Gallery
1652 Main St., West Chatham,
Things are always heating up inside Rusty Griffin’s metal shop. No matter the time of year, the blacksmith is dressed from head to toe: a long sleeve button-up, jean pants, a heavy leather apron, steel-toe boots, protective eye wear, and a set of ear plugs that rest on a headset around his neck. His gas forge is on and fired up to at least 2,000 degrees. Inside, the bright orange flames gradually turn to an electric blue as he sticks in a small square slab of steel like a pizzamaker pushing a pie into the back of a brick oven.
Forging has to be fast and precise, and Griffin is one who knows that better than just about anyone on the Cape. He is one of few blacksmiths in the area who still practices the artistic trade. After years of working with Tom O’Dell, a longtime master of metal sculpture on the Cape, Griffin began his own business in 2006, handcrafting everything from custom railings, and fireplaces screens, to tools, knives, and traditional samurai swords.
Once the metal is up to temperature in the forge, there’s only a three-minute working time before it needs to be heated back up. Plenty of days, Griffin spends hours going back and forth from his gas forge to his 1930s forge press, a large industrial hammering machine that presses down on the hot metal to thin it out. This technique is helpful when the artist makes pattern-welded steel, such as knife blades that boast a beautiful swirled grain-like pattern within the surface of the steel.
In order to achieve this look, Griffin stacks pieces of nickel and high carbon steel, folding them over multiple times to create over 200 different layers. Then he etches the blade, which is done by using an acid solution to eat away the carbon steel (nickel is like stainless steel, it doesn’t rust) and that’s how the black-and-silver swirled patterns are revealed. (“You kind of become a scientist through it all,” says Griffin). It’s a laborious process that takes complete focus and diligence, and a constant surrender to the heat.
“Needless to say, I get burned just about every day,” says Griffin, with a laugh. But with each sting on the job, comes a remarkable reward. Especially when the artist has the opportunity to breathe new life into retired furniture, fixtures and other indoor and outdoor pieces (blacksmith’s have long been trusted for their precision in repair work.)
A recent project of Griffin’s was restoring a 1930s wooden ice chest. Griffin lined the inside with copper and turned the vintage piece into a striking bathroom vanity with a copper sink bowl. Other projects include creating new pieces that mimic the look of an original that is no longer made—like old cast iron railings, their spindles so intricate they could only be achieve by carefully hand-twisting the metal.
Before studying blacksmithing and cast bronzing at Massachusetts College of Art, Griffin went to the Art Institute of Boston for illustration to round out a natural talent he already had. His drawing ability is an asset when sketching out blueprints for his metal projects. It had also helped him in creating cast bronze sculptures in which he assisted in casting some of the large-scale bronze sculptures seen on display outdoors around the Seaport Hotel in Boston.
His range of metal work even goes as far as restoring the bodies of old cars. If you’re ever in the shop, ask him about his 1977 vibrant blue Ford Bronco. The former mechanic gave a full body treatment to this classic beauty, doing away with the doors and crafting an entire new metal body while rebuilding over a dozen custom handmade pieces, including the exhaust pipes, roll bars, and interior installations. Or you might not have to if you’re in the Chatham area during the summer. It’s likely you’ll catch him cruising around town in his pride and joy piece of art.
Griffin Metal Works
Enterprise Dr., Chatham, 508-776-0265,