Bay Area artist Orion Fredericks’ penchant for working with metal dates way back to a high school project, and he’s been enchanted by the medium, developing and refining his skills, since. Best known for his large-scale sculptures, Fredericks’ unique aesthetic ignites imaginations by combining recognizable forms and lines with elements of the unexpected.
He’s installed several of his pieces at Maker Faire Bay Area over the years, and this year he unveiled Gilly (pictured above), the “mother” of his similarly styled, fire-spewing pair titled Twins. Below is a short clip showing his creative process, as well as an early rendering of the sculpture. We recently caught up with Fredericks to find out more about playing with fire, essential tools, and the joys of collaborating.
1. When and how did you learn metalworking?
When I was a junior in high school my art teacher led a sculpture build for the school library. This was my introduction to metal, in the form of manufactured pieces and what they could be transformed into. In this project, I learned how to MIG/stick weld in creating the base of the sculpture, a computer terminal for the students. I didn’t get to experience other forms of metal — cast, forged, and machine formed — until I was in college at Alfred University in the late ’90s. Even though I went to college for sculptural ceramics, I was inspired by the strength of steel, its resilience, and its additive and subtractive qualities. My very first sculptures in this material were weavings of thin metals.
I continue to learn a lot from metalworking by just putting the time into working with the material. My current knowledge is a result of a cumulative variety of processes. For this, my vocabulary was the tooling and techniques of fabrication. For example, understanding how a press brake can create complex folds and radiuses to achieve form in volume without welding, or knowing which mold-making approach would grant you this same form in multiple different metals.
2. What was the first large-scale sculpture that you built?
The first large-scale sculpture — one needing a ladder to work on — was a piece I built in 1997 called Momentary Realization. It consisted of 12 rolled plates of steel that hung from the ceiling with hand-blown glass trumpet shapes on the ends of the plates. At the back of each of these glass forms was a speaker. When you sat in the middle of the structure, a low-frequency audio track would reverberate through the glass and steel around you, creating a soothing space for meditation and reflection. The piece was 15 feet tall and 8 feet around and took me one month to build. After its completion I was further inspired to create more life-sized sculptures to transform spaces.
3. You collaborate with other artists. How does collab on a large piece typically work and what’s your favorite part?
I find that I’m always learning different approaches to solving aesthetic and mechanical challenges through collaboration. Working with other people provides even more resources for learning. This may be my favorite part of working with other craftsmen. To that end, I don’t know what’s better: to do it wrong myself or to watch someone else do it wrong. There are always lessons, the question is what is learned, and how to apply that in the future.
Collaboration usually starts by brainstorming an aesthetic solution to an idea that fits a budget and timeframe. There are a lot of metaphysical logistic coordinations, as well as literal ones, that enable a collaborative effort to work smoothly and a new form to be born. The magic happens in the synergy of the personalities involved, which makes the impossible happen. Self-awareness, humility, confidence, humor, and stamina are required. There are so many talented artisans in the Bay Area and I continue to have the privilege of working with many of them.
4. When did you start infusing your work with fire and what’s the biggest challenge?
The transformational aspect of fire was a part of my ceramic awakening. This discovery led me to working with glass, and then the molten form of metal. I started sculpting with fire at the same time that I started working with water at a production fountain shop. During the day I was learning the water side of flow dynamics, plumbing, and welding water-tight vessels of stainless steel and bronze. At night, I learned plumbing, electrical, combustion mechanics, and welding pressure vessels for gas as well as performing with sculptural instruments of fire with a group called Therm. This knowledge enabled me to create different testing platforms of flame effects that I could then give sculptural form.
My biggest consideration for working with fire is a level of efficiency between fuel consumption and the aesthetic impact. Another consideration and challenge is to be able to physically evolve the sculpture, based on the dynamic range and voice (sound) of the combustion. I’m excited to continue to push my creative boundaries as I develop new sculpture and forms to express the beauty and profundity of metal, fire, light, and water in motion.
5. Your works are otherworldly. Where do you draw the most inspiration?
The source of my inspiration is endless and has no bounds. I’m continuously surprised by life and everything that comprises the human state of reality. The scale from minute and mundane to profound provides paradigms of perspective that inhabit their own world of possibilities.
In my home, I maximize empty wall space to explore ideas where I draw and scribble visions onto paper. The endless stream of inspiration needs time to breathe and gestate. After extended creative exploration, ideas converge or stand out independently. Once this happens they graduate to a fresh piece of wall where I can muse on their material logistics.
Some inspirations are formally distinguished between product and art. I render ideas in a 3D modeling program, as a way to do mechanical work outside the shop, as well as keep a sketchbook to document my designs. Not everything I create is otherworldly. Some of my work focuses on function and form in the way metal, glass, or fire complement existing natural landscapes and architecture.
6. What are three tools you can’t live without?
A 2.5-pound planishing hammer, a TIG welder, and a grinder with a cut off wheel — which actually are pretty much the only tools I used to make Gilly.
7. What’s next?
The fire element of Gilly is next. Once Gilly has reached maturity and is fully functional, I’ll start Frilly, Gilly‘s sister. Frilly will be the same size as, if not larger than, Gilly, and will have a complementary flame effect.
I have several new sculptures that I would like to create, given the opportunity. Many of them have arranged themselves in priority with relation to a scale that would be most conducive to the venues that show large-scale sculpture. Also, I recently installed one of my pieces, Exsucitare Triectus [pictured below] at the Geyserville Sculpture Trail. This 33-foot, stainless steel kinetic portal is open to the public. There will also be a steady stream of commissioned projects throughout the rest of this year.
For more information on Fredericks and his work, head to his site. And check out the video below of Fredericks at Maker Faire Bay Area 2014, with Gilly.