A Great Combination

Artist, fabrication shop team up to create giant-size sculpture

Practical Welding Today September/October 2004
September 14, 2004
By: Stephanie Vaughan

Dwarfed by his largest sculpture to date, artist Gary Beals collaborated with K-zell Metals to create this piece for the University of New Mexico.

The stainless steel centerpiece for a grouping of sculptures at the University of New Mexico is a first for its creators for several reasons.

First, the artist had never designed a piece this large before. Second, it was the first time he designed a sculpture that someone else fabricated. And third, it marked the largest project that the fabricators had ever constructed.

In spite of these new challenges, both the artist and fabrication shop owner have deemed this piece a success.

Settling on a Design

It all started in 1999 when Gary Beals, a Phoenix artist, and his sister, Betty Sabo, an Albuquerque, N.M., artist, were commissioned to produce a sculpture project for the University of New Mexico, Beals' alma mater. Together Beals and Sabo worked on what would be a grouping located at the north end of Cornell Mall, a large rectangular plaza surrounded by several buildings vital to campus and community activities.

Beals, who formerly specialized in computer support, has been a metal artist for 13 years. He does all of his own welding and fabricates his sculptures in a studio. The largest piece his studio can accommodate, however, is 7 feet.

Beals studied art privately in Albuquerque from age 8 through college. He makes his sculptures from steel and fabricates pieces by welding and grinding. He uses mostly stainless steel or COR-TEN® weathering steel, which he allows to rust naturally.

"COR-TEN steel is ideally suited for outdoor sculpture because it rusts up to a point, developing a rich walnut brown color, and then stops rusting," Beals said. "Recently I've used a fused plastic powder coating, which imparts a durable colored finish to the pieces."

Being raised in the mixture of Spanish, Native American, and Anglo cultures that characterize New Mexico, Beals uses these influences in his art. He said he also is influenced by contemporary architecture, including the work of Daniel Libeskind and the neomodernism of Robert Whitton. Beals' sculptures appear in private and corporate collections throughout the U.S.

For the University of New Mexico project, Beals and Sabo conceptualized a very large sculpture in the center of the plaza surrounded by seven slightly larger-than-life-size cast bronze sculptures of people looking at the center sculpture and reacting to it in various ways. All of the expressions the "people" wear are meant to depict some of the ways people typically react to modern art, Beals said.

To design the center sculpture, Beals drew several versions of the same basic design. The final design was for a gleaming deconstructed steel cylinder 3 feet in diameter, 23 feet tall, 2,700 pounds, and constructed of type 304 stainless steel with welded and polished seams.

Working out the Fabrication Details

Because this project was so large, Beals didn't have the room to fabricate it in his studio, so he paid a visit to Don Kammerzell, owner of K-zell Metals, to talk about possible options for the company's services. The Phoenix metal fabricator specializes in stainless steel, mostly unique jobs such as metal sculpture, horserace starting gates, roll-up doors and countertops for school cafeterias, air filters for gas turbines on offshore oil rigs, and water filters for automotive plants. A half dozen area metal sculptors use the company for its fabrication services.

Beals and Kammerzell have known each other for roughly 15 years. They struck up a business relationship when Beals was still in the computer support business, and Kammerzell cut small metal pieces for him.

Beals showed Kammerzell the design and CAD drawings he had so far for the sculpture, and Kammerzell gave him an estimate for the fabrication, which the university approved.

Then the fabrication began.

Figuring out the Finish First

Welders from K-zell Metals used a Miller Electric XMT® 304 GMAW-P package with four-roll, solid-wire feed and Praxair's HeliStar® SS gas to prevent spatter, increase speed, reduce cleanup, and complete the sculpture under budget.

The sheer size of the sculpture, not to mention the finish, required major planning for Beals and Kammerzell's team of fabricators. Beals provided several CAD drawings that rotated the sculpture to give the fabricators all the different views of how the sculpture needed to be fabricated.

"Considering the scale of the piece, there was more work than just the finish; a lot of engineering had to go into it," Beals said.

K-zell Metals chose 10-gauge steel for the flat surfaces and 12-gauge steel for the curves. But before fabrication could begin, the group had to decide what kind of finish would be applied and how the finish would be achieved.

In small stainless steel sculptures, a swirl design can be attractive, particularly in outdoor sculptures where various light can hit different parts of the piece from several angles, Kammerzell said.

Usually such a swirl design is achieved using a 4 1/2- or 7-inch grinder. However, this wouldn't work for Beals' design.

"Because of the size of Gary's sculpture, the swirls on the finish would be too little and too noisy, so we talked about the finish and came up with making 23-inch swirls with a floor buffer," Kammerzell said. Beals added that custom-made Scotch-Brite® pads helped produce the finish.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Sure, except for the fact that the finish had to be applied before the piece was fabricated, the reverse way most sculptures are made.

"You can't finish curved pieces after they've been welded on," Kammerzell said.

Engineering and Fabrication

So after the piece was finished, the fabrication began. Of utmost concern was protecting the finish: No spatter could result from the pulsed gas metal arc welding (GMAW-P) that would be used to join the individual pieces of the sculpture together.

To prevent as much spatter as possible, fabricators used a Miller Electric XMT® 304 GMAW-P package with four-roll, solid-wire feed and Praxair's HeliStar® SS gas to increase speed, reduce cleanup, and complete the project under budget. Internal stiffeners, installed with adhesives, kept the sculpture from buckling while it was being fabricated.

Self-adhering plastic sheets also were applied to the surfaces of the sculpture to help preserve the finish during fabrication.

"We wanted real nice fillet welds with uniform weld profiles," Kammerzell said. "We were able to set the welding parameters such that we didn't have a lot of heat discoloration."

Because of its size, the sculpture was fabricated in two pieces: the top and the bottom. Kammerzell said that Beals was a little concerned about the two pieces fitting together.

But once the top half was installed on top of the bottom half, the actual sculpture was only 116 in. off from the design.

The Big Reveal

Aside from the GMAW-P, some repairs were made using gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW). For final weld finishing, the fabricators used sandpaper and a sanding disk to have more control over the metal removal.

Kammerzell said he's pleased with the quality of the fabrication.

"I'm proud of the craftsmanship from the guys here," Kammerzell said of the 23 employees who helped put the sculpture together.

Beals also was pleased with the weld quality, describing the welds as "almost as nice as a TIG fillet weld."

Beals said he enjoyed his first venture into designing a large sculpture and having it fabricated.

"A piece seldom turns out the way you envision it, but this one turned out better than I expected in terms of finish and in terms of fabrication," he said. "I'd love to do more of these."

Gary Beals, 516 W. Encanto Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85003, 602-254-1575, fax 602-261-7963, bealsart@earthlink.net.

Don Kammerzell, owner and president of K-zell Metals Inc., 1725 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040, 602-232-5882, don@kzell.com.

Stephanie Vaughan

Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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