Creating art that inspires thought

Stainless steel abstract contemporary art encourages viewer engagement

Practical Welding Today January/February 2014
February 3, 2014
By: Amanda Carlson

Las Vegas metal artist creates abstract contemporary pieces that make viewers think and let him sleep.

crimped wire

Metal artist Chris O’Rourke stands next to “Windows,” a piece that includes 70 linear feet of structural tubing that runs inside and is connected to the skin. It took him more than a year to construct and it was completely self-funded..

Vegas metal artist Chris O’Rourke gets a kick out of people who stand in front of his artwork with their mouths agape. He also enjoys the dialogue that occurs when people ask the question, “What is it?”

Being the opposite of a reclusive artist, O’Rourke counters their question with one of his own: “What is it to you?”

This exchange sums up O’Rourke’s mission as an abstract contemporary artist. It’s not his job to tell viewers what the piece is—it’s their job to interpret what they see and how it makes them feel.

O’Rourke’s journey is a winding one and includes time working in heating and air conditioning and fabricating custom motorcycles. But it was a stint as an ironworker that led to a chain of events that changed his career path completely.

“I was working on a project and my boss asked me who designed it. I said I did, and then he asked who is fabricating it for me, and I said I’m fabricating it. He’s like, what the hell are you doing out here with us? He said that I needed to pursue this, so that following Monday I went in to my boss’s office and said that I was going to bow out of this.

“I knew in my heart that what I’m doing now is where I wanted to be anyway—I just needed that push and reassurance from the guy who had hired me. It was a great compliment,” O’Rourke explained.

After he left the ironworkers he began working for himself doing custom architectural metalwork. While it was fulfilling and allowed him to exercise his immense creativity, there was still something missing, although he didn’t realize it right away.

While finishing up a motorcycle that he was making for himself, he began pushing around leftover metal scraps to see the shapes they made together. And then it dawned on him: Why not assemble these and see what happens?

He’s never been the same since.

It was just so intriguing to me that it just started to be the direction I wanted to head in. Most stuff I do because I have to get it out of my head, not necessarily because someone is paying me for it. It’s rattling around and making a bunch of noise, so I have to get it out or else I can’t sleep.”

“Perfect Is Subjective”

Creating a seamless appearance with his stainless steel artwork is important to O’Rourke, which is why he uses gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) and meticulously grinds and polishes each weld to make it blend in almost organically, a practice that stems from his motorcycle fabricating days. He does this because he wants the viewer engaged and focused on the finished product, not with how it was made.

crimped wire

“Family” is 6-1/2-ft.-tall, mirror-finished stainless steel. It has been displayed at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich., and at FABTECH® 2013 in Chicago.

“I like to do things that don’t necessarily look man-made. Maybe they were dug up or washed to shore from the ocean; they don’t have that human fingerprint on them. That’s my goal—to not reveal to the average viewer how I did what I did.”

He knew he had achieved that with “Windows” when people asked him how he bent the material on a radius. It was never bent, it was welded.

“The desire for perfection runs deep in me because I want people to look at my work and see it as flawless. Perfection is unattainable with the human hand. Perfect is subjective.”

O’Rourke saw a significant slowdown in projects after the economic downturn that began in 2008. In fact, there came a time when he thought he might have to sell his house, leaving behind his custom 3,500-sq.-ft. workshop on his property. He persevered through the difficulties, though, and has seen some pickup within the last year or two. One of his pieces was on display at FABTECH® 2013 in Chicago, which has led to a good amount of interest. He’s also completed a high-profile project for LA Fitness titled “Go Figure,” and has displayed his work at various art shows throughout the country. This year is the first time his artwork has made up the lion’s share of his annual income. Even so, it’s still the viewer’s reaction that fuels him.

“I like when people look at my work and their mouth hangs wide open. If I could pay my bills with the looks people give my work, then I would do what I do for free. That’s my goal, to make people’s jaw drop, especially people who know metal and know stainless.”

crimped wire

One of the first pieces O’Rourke created, “Love” comprises pieces of kitchen-grade cast stainless steel tubing left over from a motorcycle project.

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

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

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