Williams-Grand Canyon News Reporter
WILLIAMS, Ariz. -When local metal sculptor Tom Williams brings visitors into his studio, he asks if they've had their tetanus shots.
"What I do has a level of danger to it," he said, referring not only to the risk of being pierced by a piece of scrap metal, but also the chance of being burned while heating the metal to manipulate it.
"There's a saying that there's three kinds of blacksmiths: those who have set themselves on fire, those who will set themselves on fire and those who are currently on fire," he added.
Williams falls into the first category after a welding incident in which his frayed pants caught on fire and the flames burned through his pocket.
But high risk can also lead to high rewards. At the Nov. 14 opening of the "It's Elemental" show at the Coconino Center for the Arts, Williams won the Best in Show award for his bell titled "Resonance."
The piece is both a bell and a fountain. It consists of a bell hanging from a tree branch with decorative panels on both sides and a bowl underneath. Williams created "Resonance" for a pop-up gallery at the end of his participation in Flagstaff Cultural Partners' ArtBox, a nine-month professional development program. The theme for the project was water.
"I had never even thought of wanting to add water to a piece before, but I did and the piece turned out really, really nice," Williams said.
The piece took Williams about a month to make. He made the bowl portion from a flat piece of copper that he hammered into shape. The bell portion is made of a recycled steel oxygen tank that Williams cut into shape. The tree branch was forged from a recycled steel pipe, and the pinecone is made of recycled steel cutouts.
"Everything on the piece except for the copper is all recycled materials," Williams said. "Nothing gets thrown away. Everything gets used, even if it's not for its original intended purpose."
He made the sculpture's panels out of steel and copper. Williams used a tire hammer he made with his son from an old Grand Canyon Railway train axle to give the panels a rock-like appearance. Then he used a formula of hydrogen peroxide, vinegar and salt to rust the panels.
To form the outlines of the shamans, Williams used a technique known as repoussé to hammer the reverse side of the panels. Then he used a technique called chasing to add grooved detailing to the front of the panels.
Williams enjoys using recycled materials because they are readily available, are more affordable and are environmentally friendly.
Becoming an artist
Williams, who is also the co-owner of The Gallery in Williams, didn't originally intend to become an artist. It was another job that led him to start creating things using mostly recycled materials.
Williams' artistic path started when he was working as a mountain bike patroller for the national and state park service in California. Together with a friend who was a steel fabricator, Williams decided to set up a mobile bicycle repair shop in a truck.
"It was just amazing to me that we could start out with a pile of steel in the morning and by the afternoon have all this functional stuff made," he said. "So I took a class, and then I took a bunch of classes and got certified as a welder."
When he moved to Williams, he planned to work as a welder, but switched gears when he found out about the low welders' salaries. Instead, Williams became a bus mechanic for Flagstaff Unified School District.
"Then I went to the recycled art show and looked at some of that stuff and said, 'I can make that,'" he said. "So I would have the guys at work save pieces of steel for me to bring home, and they'd laugh at me and say, 'Hey Tom, here's some art! But they're not laughing anymore."
At that point, Williams started experimenting with creating things, but he acquired some new skills after taking blacksmith classes at Pieh Tool in Camp Verde.
"It started really slow. I made a wine rack out of horse shoes," he said. "But to me that's just sticking things together. There's still a lot of welders who do that that call themselves artists. They just stick different things together-they haven't changed it at all. The blacksmith class allowed me to do things like this where you're actually taking pieces of junk steel and making something."
Now Williams makes bells, drums, saguaros, roses, petroglyphs, pinecones and jewelry from recycled metal materials. He specializes in bells and drums because they are not just visual art but auditory as well.
"I like art that brings in more than one sense," he said. 'If I could find a way to make the roses I make smell that would be wonderful."
Williams entered his first art show in 2011, the Recycled Art Exhibition in Flagstaff, and won the Elegance award for his piece titled "The Hunt." The next year Williams entered the Recycled Art Exhibition again and won Best in Show for his piece "Shoeguaro."
Williams' award winning sculpture "Resonance" will be on display through Dec. 20 at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road. The annual juried show includes jewelry, ceramics, glasswork, wood, furniture, fabric, sculpture and more. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at (928) 779-2300.