Steve Shelby has been working with metal since the early 1970’s. Shelby received an art degree with a concentration in jewelry and metalsmithing from Ball State University. All of his art is three-dimensional, hammered out from flat sheet. The beautiful forms, inspired mostly from nature, take precedence over everything else, and surface adornment and fine detail is kept to a minimum. Shelby does his work in an unassuming little wooden building out in the country near South Whitley, Indiana, where he can work undisturbed, and there are no neighbors close enough to be disturbed by the noise of his hammering. Although he has done some production work, he prefers making one-of- a-kind pieces, always pushing himself to explore new creative territory. You can see more of his work at Artlink from September 22 - October 27, in his exhibition Soft Forms in Hard Metal, and on his website www.shelbyvision.com.
More from Kurt Roembke's conversation with Steve Shelby...
Q: Why do you do what you do?
To me it's just such a natural thing that I can't imagine not creating. And, there's been times in my life where I haven't done much creating, and when I think back on those times they were sort of empty. Like, I was wasting my time. Yeah, I just can't imagine not creating. Throughout my life, there's been people who have come along with "Oh, you could make big money doing this," and I know there's lots of things that I can make big money doing but I would not be happy at all. And I had a job for say, 20-30 years, all together various forms, but I was working for the same company and I was a craftsman. I was a skilled craftsman and it was work that not very many people can do. But I just did what I was told to do and I was unhappy the whole time. But I got paid. And you know it helped to pay the bills while we raised four kids. And so during that time, well, my creativity was pretty much limited to things like doing home remodeling and doing it my way, you know, instead of just doing it the way everybody else does. I did it my own way. I didn't really get get back into working with metal and making art until about 2002-2003 and that was after the kids were grown and mostly out of the house. I guess that heavy responsibility wasn't weighing on me anymore.
Q: How did you go from creative home improvement to abstract sculpture?
It actually came about totally separate from anything else and it's the weirdest thing. It just popped into my head when I was waking up one morning. I just had this picture in my head. It was like a brass flower vase and it just appeared in my in my head while I was laying in bed. And I got up and thought, "Hmm, I'm gonna get back into metalwork and I'm gonna make something like what I just saw," and that started it.
Q: Does your art still start as a creative spark out of nowhere?
I have had things, just sort of ideas, just pop into my head. I think, more often new ideas come while I'm already working on something. I'll get a sudden inspiration, just something from what I'm doing inspires me to do something else.
Q: How did you feel when you suddenly woke up with the inspiration to make art? Did you have any hesitations or did you just accept it as your calling?
Well, I didn't start it right away, because I didn't have the materials. I didn't have any brass to work with, and I had some silversmithing tools that I had used when I was in college and they'd been sitting in a drawer in my garage for 20-30 years. I dug those out and I set up a little place where I already had a workshop and I started on a couple of weeks later or something. And what I ended up doing was at the right time of year I guess, because I made a flower vase and I gave it to my mom as a Christmas gift and she loved it. And I think I made a second flower vase like the first one, and I made a couple of candle holders. And then I didn't do anything else again until the following winter. Before Christmas, I made another thing for my mom, and I did that for about three, or four, five years in a row where pretty much all I did was make something for my mom for Christmas. Then, I got to making my wife something for her birthday, which is about a month and a half after Christmas, and then the rest of the year I just did other things. But then, just very gradually, I started working and doing the metal smith thing year-round.
Q: How did your relationship with the art world start?
Well, that kind of started gradually, too. I mean, right about this time the internet was really starting to catch on, well I guess it had caught on before that, but I had just started paying attention to it. And it occurred to me that I could maybe sell my things on the Internet. But I had to have a portfolio. So, it was a few years of making these things before I had enough things I needed to make a web page that looked like I had actually done much of anything. And so, once I had 10 pieces that I could show photographs of, I started a Web page. I really didn't sell anything. But, through the Internet, I got to to find other other metalsmiths and find email groups and forums for metalsmiths. I got to talk to other metalsmiths and network with them and that has grown. Then Facebook came out. There are global networks of metalsmiths on Facebook and then there's some groups that have a couple two or three thousand members and it's pretty amazing. I guess, I'm going off on a tangent. I guess, after having a Web site for a couple of years or so I started seeking out places I could exhibit in and so forth. I think the first one I entered, I didn't get in, which was a little discouraging. And then through one of those forums, I started getting people to critique my photographs. There were some experts in photography on this one forum and they were experts in how a picture should look
when it's going to be viewed by a juror for an art exhibition. And and there's one guy on there who is a professional photographer and he critiqued my work, my photography, and gave me all kinds of pointers, and just through that I learned what it takes to make really good photographs that are right for entering exhibitions. And actually from that point on I started getting into exhibitions fairly regularly. And I usually get to have pieces in exhibitions, maybe three or four times a year.
Q: Through those online forums, I understand you started making tools for other metalworkers?
Yeah, yeah. I was I was in a metalsmithing forum where people would post photographs of the pieces they made and a lot of people would show them working on it and show the process of making it. And so, I thought well that's a cool idea. And so, I started doing that, too. And over the years I've developed my own techniques for doing things. And that's one of the things about working a lot, you develop your own techniques and your own ways of doing things. And I just kind of along the way discovered some tooling that I made myself that works better than anything else that's out there for various things, and well when I took photographs of me doing the work online, and people would say, "Hey, are you going to sell those?" And when I had enough people tell me I ought to sell them, I thought well maybe I should. So, I started making them and selling, and since it's such a tiny niche market, I could pretty much keep up with all the demand for that and just squeezed it in between other projects.
Q: You mentioned earlier, that you'd like to start using QR codes in your exhibits, that will lead the viewers who scan them to videos and images that explain how you made them. It seems like you've just been dragging the Internet along throughout your career and making it fit the mold that you need it to.
Yeah, well when I talk to people, you know just regular people, they seem to know what I do, but they have absolutely no idea how it's done. And it's always like, "Oh, you take metal and melt it and pour it in a mold or something," and no that's not what I do. And I have to explain to them what I do. And so I have gotten to the point where it's kind of a personal crusade to let everyone know how I do what I do. And that's a good way to explain the prices I have to charge for everything. And a lot of the reaction usually is, "Oh, that's a lot of money," but it's all the labor that goes into it. And so, I think you know by showing people, giving them an idea of how much labor goes into it, at least you know they might not think I'm charging them way too much.
Q: What else have you learned along the way?
I had a commission to do a sculpture of Poseidon, the Neptune God of the sea. And it was totally unlike anything I've ever done. And I decided to make it out of sheet bronze, which is really hard to work. That's much more difficult than copper and brass. I didn't charge him what I thought he would expect to have to pay, not what I thought would be fair compensation for the hours I put into it, because I knew it would take way longer than what I was getting paid. And and it did. It took probably two or three times the normal time, but my reasoning was that this is something that's going to be probably the biggest challenge of my career so far, and what I will learn from this will be much greater than any amount of money I could get. I thought that going into it, and it was pretty torturous. It was a horrible job. Most of the time I would spend hours working on something and see no progress at all. And it was kind of like going through hell. But by the time I was done with it, I had a pretty fabulous sculpture! And what it did for me, what it taught me, was just priceless, really. I learned so much from that and I've applied it to a lot of things that I made after. After that, this year, some of the things that are in my exhibition this year; the Mermaid, and Isabel the Bell, the bronze Bell, those are things that are kind of offshoots of that Poseidon project.
Q: Have you ever failed at making one of the ideas that you've had become a real physical thing?
Yeah, I've had some things that I've had on my list for years that I just never have gotten around to figuring out how to do, and I just don't have the inspiration to get it started. There is the piece, Isabel. It's hanging on the wall and it's a woman's head and it's mechanical and you pull on a chain and it forces a hammer into her head which makes it ring. And she has a pained look on her face. And that was a real challenge to try to make a woman's face with a pained look.
Q: Why were you inspired to make a bell?
Because when I'm hammering, sometimes the metal rings and there are times when I'm making a dome shaped item, and I'll just take it off and balance it on my hand and ring it it with my hammer, and it just plays this beautiful tone. So I thought, "OK, I want to make a bell." And this idea went around my head for a long, long time. It started out as a bell that would be like one of those bells that sometimes they have on the service counter and it's just a little chrome plated thing. And you hit the thing on top and it rings. But I wanted to make something bigger that, sort of shaped like a mushroom or something. And the idea just kind of progressed. And then when I decided I wanted to do this exhibition at Artlink, the idea progressed into a bell hung on the wall. And so then ok what's the bell going to be shaped like? It originally was this kind of mushroom like mushroom shape with a nice curve to it. And then I got thinking about bells and thinking about what would look cool and what's just mundane and somehow the idea of a person had just popped into my house. My mind figured that was so much better than anything else I'd ever thought of. So that was that. And then that grew from there and I got well into the project beforeI knew exactly how I was going to handle it. And just after I had the head made, then I did the engineering part of it, for which I hadn't even designed a thing. So, I think I spent a whole day just figuring that out. And then the mechanism when I got the head done, I thought, "Well I'm at least halfway through this project." But the mechanical mechanism turned up to be really difficult. It was some real mechanical engineering in that I think I ended up taking more time on that than anything else.