August 3, 2012
After working for a few years making leather belts and belt buckles, Anthony “AJ” Patti moved on to designing and manufacturing leather goods for Harley-Davidson, then went on to pewter casting to make jewelry for the venerable motorcycle manufacturer. An artist always striving for efficiency and mass production, Patti’s latest venture is making sculptures and adornments for gardens.
Just a glance into either of Anthony J. Patti’s showrooms brings to mind an old nursery rhyme:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
If Patti had his way, Mary’s garden would have a sculpture of a frog riding a unicycle, an oversized praying mantis standing guard, and three or four ladybugs all in a row. The variety of vivid colors on Patti’s sculptures—big splashes of candy-apple red, orange, green, purple, and yellow characterize most of his work—would contrast nicely with Mary’s silver bells and cockleshells, and the quirky, light-hearted appearance of Patti’s creatures would probably get a smile from Mary.
While Patti has a hand in every step of the process, from creating the concepts to baking the finished pieces to harden the enamel, he’s as much a manufacturer as an artist.
“I started using leather-working tools when I lived in Denver,” he said. He was making belts and other leather goods, and later branched out to making belt buckles. Before long he ran the third-largest custom belt buckle manufacturer in the country, by his estimate. The processes used for working leather to make belts and forming metal to make belt buckles have nothing in common, but from a business perspective it makes sense to sell complementary products. In didn’t hurt that Patti was developing capabilities in more than one medium.
Most artists give little thought to developing stable, repeatable processes. Every piece of art, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture or a piece of jewelry should be unique. One-of-a-kind items have more artistic value than mass-produced, identical items; this is a principle that separates artwork from manufactured products.
Patti would agree, but his days as a leatherworker gave him an appreciation for mass production. While many of his competitors were rolling a patterned wheel along a belt to emboss a repeating pattern, Patti developed a 50-in.-long epoxy tool and used a 100-ton press brake to emboss the entire length of the belt in one shot. This enabled him to create a nonrepeating pattern, an embossed design that was unique from one end of the belt to the other.
“I have always focused on making the tools and machines needed to manufacture artistic goods,” Patti said.
The 1980s was a good time to be in the leather goods business. The movie “Urban Cowboy,” released in 1980, popularized Western clothing, but it was much more than a U.S. trend. At one point Patti had 45 employees and was exporting belts and related goods to 17 countries. The U.S. economy fell into recession in the 1991-1992 timeframe, and the company fell on hard times. Patti’s business didn’t recover, but he used that experience to step it up a notch. His next move was working for Tandy Corp., developing new products for Harley-Davidson’s line of clothing and motorcycle accessories. From there he moved into pewter casting, designing and making jewelry for Harley-Davidson.
This was good work, but in the late 1990s, Patti was primed for a new venture. He had prepared by working for decades in both creating works of art and replicating them as efficiently as possible. Opportunity knocked, and Patti answered the door.
“My father saw a rotating garden sprinkler made from copper, and he wanted me to make one,” Patti said. “Around that time I saw some copper bugs that were garden ornaments.” Patti saw potential in gardens. He recalled a brazing lesson from years earlier, so it wasn’t long before he was cutting lengths of copper wire to make legs and antennas and shaping sheets of copper with a pneumatic power hammer to make heads, bodies, and wings.
He and his artistic staff spent two years using nibbling tools to cut each piece from copper sheets. Patti modernized the operation when he invested in a plasma table. Always thinking like a manufacturer, Patti nests the parts as efficiently as possible to minimize scrap. This is critical when working with copper, which on occasion costs as much as $5 per pound ($10,000 per ton).
Of course, not every piece is designed for manufacturability; Patti seems to design some projects specifically to test his own perseverance. He fondly recalled the intricate work that went into a pair of eagles he created in 2007. Made with 4-ft. wingspans, each had 1,400 feathers.
Many artists exploit copper’s look. Left exposed to varying weather, the metal develops a patina as the surface changes. Although not bright and reflective as it was when the copper was new, the tarnished surface is attractive. Alternatively, many artists work with acids to age copper rapidly, bringing out the patina much faster.
Some of Patti’s works have a patina, but for most of the objects, Patti does everything he can to develop and preserve a bright, glossy appearance. He uses automotive-quality finishes and several layers of clear coat, baked in an oven he designed and built, to protect the copper from the effects of weather.
“Adding the paint really made a difference,” he said. “I don’t have to use primer, and the polished surface of the copper really reflects.”
While the colors improve the pieces’ appeal, Patti identifies the design concept as the critical defining property of his work.
“I try to use smooth lines, simple designs, and flowing edges,” he said. “I avoid hard edges, which would make something like a praying mantis look a little aggressive. Most of these works have big eyes and smiles. They’re a little silly, but they usually get a chuckle.”
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