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Metals students create works of beauty, endurance

February 02, 2009

In the Bible and various works of literature, one finds many references to the "refiner's fire": the idea that out of flame and heat comes beauty.

No one knows this better than Becky McDonah, assistant professor in the Herberger College School of Art, who holds sway in the well-equipped metals studio, tucked away in the Art Warehouse.

There, her students use open flames as they create objects of beauty through practicing the blacksmithing and silversmithing techniques they are learning in class.

The students don't just make rings and earrings to sell at art fairs, however. These are serious artists who create sculpture, utilitarian objects, wearable art out of gold, silver, copper, brass, bronze and, occasionally steel -- and yes, occasionally, rings and earrings.

ASU has one of the best-equipped metals studios in the United States for a wide range of metalworking techniques, thanks to the efforts of David Pimentel, the long-time metals professor who died in 2004.

“Our goal is to continue to provide our students with knowledge of an extensive inventory of techniques,” McDonah said.

Pimentel, who created ASU's ceremonial Mace and President's Medallion, was an expert in "raising," said McDonah. “Raising is an ancient process in which a flat sheet of metal is hammered over a hard surface/form called a stake to force it into a volumetric form such as a vessel or bowl. This process can produce a seamless vessel.”

For the past three years, the ASU Metalworking Department has hosted the annual Intercollegiate Metals Exhibition, which brings work from eight universities across the nation to show the work of their graduate and undergraduate metals students, as well as faculty.

"This exhibition is a great opportunity to educate, inspire and develop public and academic awareness in the field of metalworking," McDonah said. "It showcases a wonderfully diverse cross-section of what is happening in metals studios across the country."

The most recent exhibition, in October, featured work from ASU, Bowling Green State University, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Indiana University at Bloomington, Kent State University, Rhode Island School of Design, San Diego State University and the University of North Texas.

What is happening nationwide in metals studios is an increasing use of other media such as fibers, plastics and resins, along with the metals, McDonah said.

"The skills and techniques are the same, no matter the worth of the metal, whether you are using copper or precious metals. But there still are purists who only want to use precious metals."

McDonah, who earned her graduate degree at ASU and taught at Bowling Green State University for four years before returning to ASU, creates "reliquaries," or vessels that showcase "things that are important or symbolic to me," she said.

One reliquary, for example, contains thorns, cactus spikes and Arizona peridot. Her environmental concern is illustrated in a reliquary with disposable diapers, “Venerable Vestment: Cloth v. Convenience,” which points out how many disposable diapers end up in landfills.

Her most ambitious reliquary, “Digging for Gold,” is made of raised copper, shaped into trowel-like edges with a globe containing dandelion fluff as a centerpiece.

McDonah didn't always plan to have a career in metals. In college, she was a mass communication major and worked in a television studio.

"That wasn't much fun," she said. "I took a class in metals and that was it."

That beginning metals class changed her life in more ways than one. She met and married a fellow student, Tedd McDonah, who also went on to teach metals, first at University of Toledo and now in the Phoenix area. He augments the ASU program by teaching special topics such as blacksmithing, mokume-gane,enameling and Damascus steel.

Becky McDonah teaches advanced fabrication techniques, casting, raising, fold-forming, the Korean Keum-boo technique, chasing, repoussé, chainmaking, tool-making and an ancient technique known as granualtion, among other topics.

In keeping with ASU's commitment as the New American University's to being part of the community, McDonah and her students do a public-service project every year.

This year, the metals department hosted a day-long metalworking merit badge workshop for local Boy Scout Troop 630.

McDonah and her student volunteers taught the scouts how to make center punches out of tool steel and harden and temper them for lasting durability.

Then, each scout and scout leader made a belt buckle by using the jeweler's saw to cut out designs in brass that they later soldered to the buckle plates that they had formed with a hydraulic press. Their final step was to clean up the metal surface and use patina for coloration.

“It was a great opportunity for the metals department – including volunteers from the faculty, graduate and undergraduate levels – to interact with the community and offer a glimpse of one direction that is possible in the metals field,” McDonah said.