September 5, 2013
Alabama metal artist captures the essence of celebrities, political figures, and influential historical figures with his 3-D metal pop portraits.
Metal artist Alan Derrick of Gurley, Ala., has had the urge to work with metal ever since he was a young man tinkering in his parents’ garage. The 20-year veteran of the construction industry has always been drawn to the artistic side of things and even found his knack for creativity useful on the job. Even though he enjoyed his construction job, metalworking never left his blood.
“Fabricating with metal is much more challenging than fabricating with wood. It was the challenge that drew me back.”
Derrick got the itch to “putter around his garage” in 2001. At that time he purchased a lathe, a milling machine, an automotive paint spray gun, and a few welding power sources and made larger-than-life bird feathers that were anywhere from 2 to 9 ft. tall. He hand cut each one and sold them through art galleries. In 2008, just as his feathers gained traction in the fine art community, the economy collapsed.
“Galleries started going out of business and things stopped selling. I had a couple of people working for me at the time, so I had to let them go and re-evaluate what I was doing and where I was going to go next.”
Derrick revisited skills he acquired in Photoshop, CorelDRAW, and architectural CAD. In college he learned how to create a silhouette image from a photograph, and that led to the idea of creating 3-D portraits with multiple layers of steel. So he drew a design and cut each layer by hand using a pneumatic shear, a nibbler, or a grinder. He made koi fish, trees, and a dog and graduated to portraits of Michael Jackson and Madonna, and put them up for sale on e-Bay.
“They sold quickly, and I got good feedback, so I made some more. At that point I knew I had to do something about how I cut them out.”
After some research, Derrick purchased a CNC plasma cutting table, familiarized himself with a few new CAD programs, and got to work. He draws each layer, loads them into CAD, and cuts them separately, which can be difficult at times, especially since each layer is designed to give the illusion of a light source.
“I have to be able to visualize the top layer, the middle layer, and then the back layer all working together in color to create the illusion that I want. Sometimes I get myself a headache trying to get these things to work out. Even with all of the technology out there, sometimes it comes out in a way that I don’t like, so I’ll have to start over. A vast majority of the time I can draw these things, tweak them in the computer, and see onscreen how the layers interact with one another.”
A metal standoff—threaded cylinders—provides the ½-in. separation between each layer. Derrick carefully locates each standoff and welds it in place with gas metal arc welding (GMAW).
Once each layer is secure, he might give one of the layers a once over with a grinder to give it a textured appearance, like on “Seize the Day”. From there he takes the portrait into the spray booth and adds color, typically starting with the darker colors in the back layers and saving the lighter colors for the front. The color enhances the illusion of the perceived light source.
Derrick now receives requests faster than he can accommodate, and nearly every one of his portraits is met with criticism. If he portrays anyone remotely polarizing or political, President Barack Obama, for example, his motivations are questioned and criticized immediately. Even though art that generates so much passion in viewers is essentially a good thing, that’s really not Derrick’s end game.
The truth is, while he has his own political and social beliefs that he prefers to keep to himself, he is, at the heart of it all, just a guy who enjoys people and likes learning about what makes them tick. If it were up to him, he’d capture the images of everyday people who are unique, quirky, and fascinating.
“There’s this tug of war that occurs between creating the art that I want to make and creating art that people want to buy. I’ll bet I’ve never sold two copies of one of the better pieces I’ve made.”
He researches everyone he features, which gives him ideas on how to make the portrait unique to that individual, as was the case with his Nelson Mandela piece.
“I learned about how he spent 27 years in prison objecting to apartheid. If you look in the background—and it’s a lot more evident in person—there’s a big 27 sitting behind the text. I never would have done that if I hadn’t done my research.”
And as far as portrait subjects go, the sky is the limit. And a file folder at least an inch thick full of requests from customers and fans of his work means he’s got plenty to do.
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