Retired photographer finds magic in metal art
May 9, 2012
When photography lost its luster, a happy coincidence sent Dick Roberts on a quest to learn everything he could about metalworking. The result has led him to appreciate how new technology and an old processes can work in unison for his newfound method of artistic expression.
A 70-ish Dick Roberts believed two things: First, that he was too old to learn new tricks and, second, that he would never again feel as strongly about something as he once felt about photography.
You see, capturing images was Roberts’ artistic outlet of choice from the get-go. He was a portraitist who specialized in capturing school events, families, and weddings. He used to say that he had acetic acid in his veins because of how much he loved the time he spent in the darkroom developing photos.
“I loved photography and creating an image, especially when you could print your own pictures. Using this watery solution to help bring up an image was like magic,” Roberts said emphatically.
But photography, like metalworking, has undergone many technological advancements over the last 20 years, and with it the process of developing pictures changed from being mostly manual to almost exclusively digital. That evolution made Roberts realize that the magic he once felt for his profession had slowly faded away, and it was time to move on to something else.
Roberts’ journey to metal art began with, of all things, a golf cart, of course. At that time he had just moved into a retirement community and wanted a golf cart to tool around from place to place. Golf carts require batteries. Batteries require charging. To make things easier, he looked for a small metal cart to haul the battery charger around, but he couldn’t find one in stores.
“I thought I’d make one myself. I have always felt that if it needs to be done, I can do it.”
He made a prototype cart from wood, but wanted the final product to be metal, because it’s sturdier. The problem was, Roberts had never worked with metal in any capacity.
It was a challenge, but not one Roberts was afraid of. He purchased some metal rods, sheet metal, and a welding power source and began learning how to weld from instructional DVDs. He pored over any information he could find pertaining to metalworking, metal art, its history, and technology advancements.
All of the instructional DVDs focused on manual cutting. But when Roberts was first introduced to a CNC plasma table, he began to visualize the possibilities of this new undertaking, and he viewed manual cutting as an unnecessary hurdle that stood between him and the finished product.
“When I learned about this CNC machine, I thought it was magic. All you have to do is put an image into a computer and it just cuts out the metal. I just thought, ‘Wow!’”
That’s not to say that the learning curve was easy—because it wasn’t—or that mechanized cutting decreases the merit of his creativity—because it doesn’t. Each cut part is subjected to postcutting processes that shape it to fit the overall scheme of the artistic endeavor.
Once he drafts a design and loads it into the CAD/CAM program, he cuts the pieces with his Torchmate® 4x4 plasma cutting table.
“The CNC was more accurate, controllable, and much faster, but it didn’t take away from the artist integrity. You don’t have to do something by hand; the object is what you come up with.”
After cutting, Roberts uses an old tree stump and a ball-peen hammer to shape each part. Sometimes he uses an oxyacetylene torch across the piece to give it some texture. Then he’ll use an air planishing hammer to smooth out the pound marks; a grinder to shape and clean certain areas; and finally a gas metal arc welding machine to put it all together.
Still, the irony of his newfound situation is not lost on him.
“All the time I’ve spent complaining about these young people using digital cameras, well, I became one of them, only with metal art! All of these old-timers are saying, ‘This guy isn’t a metal artist.’ I believe if you have the ability to create, it doesn’t matter what you do to create it. It’s the end product that you should be judged on.”
When other burgeoning metal artists heard Roberts’ story, they contacted him with questions about his CNC table. But he found that he was spending more time answering questions than making metal art, so he decided to put the answers to their questions on video. Roberts now offers his three-part DVD series on his Web site, and he even has his own channel on YouTube.com.
“I wanted to help them so that they wouldn’t have to go through all of the things that I had to go through when I was learning. I had an awful time learning.”
Not too shabby for a retired photographer who discovered metalworking by accident later in life.
“It was like a creation of me. When I make art out of a flat piece of steel, I have the same feeling of magic as I did when I’d watch an image reveal itself on a blank piece of paper. So after 45 years of doing that and eventually losing that magic, all of a sudden I’ve found it again.”