Art Students Create Sculptures from Salvage

For the uncreative, a heap of metal is just that—a pile of useless, rusty waste.

For the sculptor, however, a salvage yard is unchartered territory ripe with hidden treasure.

Since spring semester 2014, John Powers, associate professor of sculpture at the University of Tennessee, has led a class on a salvage dig at a local mill to create sculptures for an exhibition on display throughout April. It’s a beginning-to-end process, from finding materials and designing a sculpture to organizing the event from set-up to take-down.

“The project with students came about in an organic way. We’d been in dialogue with the mill as a field trip for a fabrication class, and somewhere in the midst of that, the Dogwood Arts people got in the conversation. My class got involved the first year I was in Knoxville,” John says. “We did the dig and started talking with Moxley Carmichael about having a show and tying it in with recycling month. We work with the convention center, and for the last five years, that space has been donated.”

The dig experience has evolved each year. John used to encourage sketches and ideas before hunting for scraps, but that usually led to students returning to the workroom with changed ideas and plans. Now the goal is to go with an open mind and see what materials they respond to.

Though the class is geared toward sculptor majors, it’s open to other students who want to learn more about welding, forging and metal working. In fact, only a few of the classes’ students are sculpture majors. The rest are creatives in other fields who were eager to challenge themselves on a new level.

Ceara Wallus, a 3D Studio Art major, wanted to learn more about metal work and signed up for the class knowing this project was part of the curriculum.

“There wasn’t a method for finding pieces,” she says. “I just started looking at forms and how they might go together. I like linear qualities but also balancing curved objects. It took two or three hours to find stuff. It was exhausting. To other people, it’s junk, but to us, it’s great!”

Ceara’s piece quickly took the shape of a fire pit, and now she’s focused on making it functional.

Dylan Bagnasco is graduating next month with a master’s degree in landscape architecture, and he signed up for the fabrication class specifically to learn welding and forging skills to weave those elements into his future profession. His inspiration for the salvage sculpture started with cave drawings.

“I have a vision for an animal, like a bull, something primitive and abstract,” he says. “I’m trying to build a skeleton on the ground and move it to the table to continue building.”

Zimbabwe native Nyasha Madamombe, a graduate student in sculpture, grew up learning how to chisel and sculpt stone as part of her heritage and local tradition. The process is slow and meditative, which is why metal work has been such an intriguing challenge.

“It was a cold day on the dig, and I kept spotting things that were round. I’m used to working more slowly with stone, but metal is fast. You weld and it’s done!” she says, laughing.

Kristina Key had an interest in sculpture for a while, though it’s not a primary focus for her graduate studies in printmaking. Her established passion for working with green materials and bringing non-toxic methods to printmaking means working with scrap metal was right up her alley.

“I’m interested in repurposing,” Kristina says. “I had an idea of what I wanted to find, but then I gravitated toward gears and disks. Some are soft enough to hand-manipulate. I want to play with balance and movement. I wanted this challenge.”

Students worked on their pieces throughout February and March in preparation for the installation on April 2 on the Clinch Concourse of the convention, followed by a reception on April 3. The exhibition runs until the end of the semester, culminating on April 23.

“The work is on display and visible to anyone who can get in the convention center. There’s tons of foot traffic,” John says. “One year they had a show at the same time as a high school robotics convention, and the students were in awe over the sculptures, thinking about how they could make them move. It was a true intersection.”