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Ann Arbor's METAL takes eco-conscious approach to metal craft

Nicholas William/Daily
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By Julia Kline, For the Daily
Published October 25, 2012

METAL is a world of striking contrasts. Large imposing machines crowd its fabrication studio in Ann Arbor. There is a plasma cutter, a sandblaster, a milling machine for the texturizing of metals and a "break" that bends and shapes metal parts. A whimsical tin-man sculpture greets entrants to the shop. Mel, a large metal T-Rex, grins atop the plasma cutter. These daunting devices are all industrial machines that have been repurposed from industrial machines to create works of art.

METAL, located on Felch Street, is a metalworking studio, gallery, classroom and venue for performance. Since its opening in 2011, owners Claudette Jocelyn Stern and John Daniel Walters have used the space to create and display metal art.

Metalworking is energy-intensive and is not traditionally an environmentally friendly endeavor. Yet environmentalism lies at the core of the craft at METAL. Owners Stern and Walters united in this shared passion.

The duo first met at an iron pour in Tucum Cari, New Mexico in 2006, both driving environmentally friendly vehicles. Walter’s car had been rigged to run on cooking grease, while Stern’s ran on bio diesel. A few years after their first meeting, Walters moved to Ann Arbor for graduate school to study art. Shortly after attaining his degree, he conceived METAL with Stern, an Ann Arbor native.

Since the studio's opening in 2011, other creative individuals have sought out Stern and Walters, intent on becoming part of the METAL family. Andrew Kyt came to practice forging and blacksmithing and singer-songwriter Sarah Carroll joined the METAL team as administrative and marketing director.

Carroll said people of all artistic backgrounds can find inspiration at METAL.

“People really enjoy coming in here and just being inspired by art, whether it be interior designers, or graphic designers, or poets, or dancers, they just all are inspired,” Carroll said. “And I think it's because art really does transcend all those areas.”

METAL also serves as an educational forum. On Oct. 27 and 28 METAL will host a workshop on tintype photography, an art form with a strong metal connection that involves creating colloidal prints on metal surfaces. Tintype became popular in the 1860s and was used extensively for portraits throughout the 19th century.

METAL itself came from re-purposing and salvaging: The light fixtures are relics from the old Ice Cube skating rink; the walls once comprised the ceiling of an old gallery.

Stern said she frequently travels to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and out west in search of found materials for METAL’s creations, noting that she first became intrigued by found materials as a small child in southern California.

“There was so much debris that would wash up on the beaches,” Stern said. “You could always find rusty bits of old freighters that washed up or other debris, and for me it was just really fascinating.”

Walters heads project management, which involves overseeing each step of production — from design to the final product. Walters explained how he takes a client’s vision and helps it come alive in metal. He added that environmentalism takes a top priority in his work.

“As a core component of my belief, when I make something I want it to last a very long time,” Walters said. “That means a lot to me and it sort of solidifies the effort which I put into the object.”

As a result of METAL's non-traditional environmental concerns, many of the patinas used to coat the metal art are water-based instead of being made from toxic chemicals.

In addition to its environmental bent, Stern describes METAL as “devoted to the idea of community.” To this end, METAL provides a venue for other forms of artistic expression. A band performed in its studio, and the poetry group, One Pause Poetry, calls the studio its home.

During One Pause performances, the fabrication studio is transformed into an auditorium with folding chairs and a small stage. Poets including University professors Ken Mikolowski and Matthew Rohrer perform at METAL. During a recent performance, Rohrer shared dream-like verses written in the hypnagogic state between sleeping and waking, while Mikolowski charmed the crowd with his wry two-line poems.

Before making METAL its permanent home, One Pause held its readings in a barn on Liberty Street. Rohrer recalled with a laugh that Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Tracy Smith, read her poetry in a tent in the barn, adding that he likes the community-oriented feel METAL gives to the readings.

“Poetry is often presented in a classroom setting or an academic setting,” Rohrer said. “That’s fine, but poetry is bigger than that. It predates it. Here we can come together with the community at large in an art setting.”

METAL’s commitment to community extends far beyond the boundaries of Ann Arbor and even the United States. After the devastating 2011 tsunami, members of METAL and other local artists met to discuss how they could support the Japanese community.

“The Japanese decided that what they needed was an event to encourage children to connect with art and use it as a vehicle for some amount of healing after that tragedy and trauma,” Stern said.

The artists auctioned pieces off to benefit the cause, using their creativity as a catalyst for global healing.

METAL is many things to many people: an environmentally friendly metalworking shop, a teaching space and a venue for creative expression. Stern said the contrasts and opposites present at METAL come together to create its intriguing character.

“My business partner and I are opposites in a lot of ways,” Stern said. “But the oppositional aspects create a whole that really makes METAL a supremely interesting place and gives us a lot of possibilities.”

Stern also sees a unifying theme in the disparate elements of metal.

“Making (art) or making a business work is all the same to me,” Stern said. “It takes vision, it takes hard work, and it takes planning and it also takes a lot of kismet. But more than anything it takes the right chemistry of people and their willingness to work through a lot just like you do in any family or relationship.”


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