Welding her way outside the box

Suburban Chicago artist tackles a new challenge--teaching

Practical Welding Today September/October 2009
September 25, 2009
By: Amanda Carlson

Suburban Chicago artist Pamela Olin first picked up a welding torch five months after giving birth to her second child. Sixteen years later Olin still has a welding gun in hand, but now she wants to educate other women on thinking outside the box and considering welding as a hobby or as a career option.

pamela olin artist

Pamela Olin creates the "Cascading Cubes" archway for HC's permanent art collection. These steel cubes are the final exam for the college's welding certificate program. Photos courtesy of Erin Brooks, Harper College, Palatine, Ill.

It's no accident that Pamela Olin's viewpoints on life and the world are reflected in her art. The Arlington Heights, Ill., artist's great affinity for the human form—and loathing of anything considered inside the box—is alive in everything she creates.

"I like the human form and the space immediately surrounding it. I like us and how we interact with the world around us. It's that interface where the rubber hits the road. That's where whatever is in our heads becomes a reality once it gets out of us."

Take, for example, the sculpture "Rise Above Interference (see Figure 1)." A copper and steel human form standing 39 in. tall is welded atop a 12-in.-diameter hemisphere that has painted solid steel cubes strewn about. An outstretched arm holds in its hand a sphere, representing the thoughts of a person who is living life outside the box.

She coated the body with several layers of pulverized copper in a clear substrate and painted the boxes on the sphere with interference paint, which "interferes" with the way you perceive a color depending on how the light hits it.

For her human figures, Olin makes an armature from 1/4-in. rod, which is then layered with weld bead from a gas metal arc welding (GMAW) gun up to about to 1 in. thick. She fashions the torso first and then works her way out to the limbs and then sandblasts everything before welding it to the base.

Olin herself revels in all things outside the box (see Figure 2). She first picked up a welding torch five weeks after giving birth to her second child. Sixteen years later she's still got a welding gun in her hand.

Accomplished in painting, drawing, and sculpting using a variety of media, Olin had always been intrigued at the thought of working with steel, a material that, in her words, is the most forgiving material she's ever worked with.

"You can always repair, change, take away, or add to it. For me it's taking something that is very hard, commercial, and crisp and using it in a very fluid and organic way," Olin explained.

So when an artist friend offered to teach her how to weld, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

From the get-go, oxyacetylene welding came easily to Olin—it was like painting, only with a flame and molten metal. It satisfied her need to create things, and it reinforced in her mind that she was doing what she was always meant to do.

"I prefer to work in three dimensions. What drew me to steel was the immediacy of the permanence of the weld—it's truly becoming one and it's some of the best instant gratification around."

In the years after receiving initial training, Olin transitioned from oxyacetylene welding to GMAW.

"I sold my oxyacetylene torch once my kids started taking driver's education and the acetylene in the garage became somewhat of a liability," Olin joked.

"I have a couple of GMAW power sources and I have a plasma cutter, so that gives me the ability to add to and subtract from whatever I'm working on."

After putting all of her own welding equipment into storage when her family moved to Arlington Heights last winter, Olin enrolled in a welding class as an independent study student at Harper College (HC), Palatine, Ill. Olin recalled a woman in the introductory welding class who would frequently come to her with problems.

"One gal in particular couldn't get a handle on getting the welds right. They were working with torches at the time, and I said, 'When I'm working with a torch, I like to think of the blue flame as an eyeliner brush.' I think in terms of painting with the flame. That's my frame of reference because I'm a girl. Bottom line is the analogy worked for her, and she was able to get a handle on it quickly, and it made a difference."

When she realized that women were somewhat intimidated and lacked confidence in what they were doing and that the male instructors were teaching from a totally different frame of reference, the wheels began to turn in Olin's head. As a firm believer in the feeling of empowerment that welding can give to a woman, she believed she could teach a class that would help women get over the intimidation factor involved with striking an arc, working with their hands, and building things. She approached Kurt Billsten, maintenance technology/welding department coordinator at HC.

"When I saw there was a need, I thought that I could teach a class for women because that wasn't being done. They have a great certification program over there, and this could encourage women to take advantage of it."

Billsten and Olin collaborated to come up with two new, noncredit classes that Olin will teach starting this fall—Intro to Welding for Women and Make Your Own Garden Sculpture. No welding experience is necessary, said Olin, adding that even a few men had signed up for the Intro to Welding for Women class.

"My goal is to encourage women to go beyond. They can take the credit welding classes, get certified, and find employment in an area that they would never have had the option before."

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8260

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