mount vernon: This doesn’t seem like a place where beauty is born.
Metal bars fill a rack under a scarred work table. Welding helmets hang in a line. Steel shelves hold hardware, tools, tubes of caulk and cans of spray enamel.
Yet this is where, over the course of a day, rough materials are coaxed into art that will grace gardens.
This is Hammer Song Farm, the home and studio of artist Tom Bland and his family. It’s where Bland creates the large garden sculptures he sells online and at art shows, but it’s also where he guides others in creating their own versions of a few of his designs.
The studio overlooks the shorn remnants of a soybean field on the 10-acre farm, which borders the Kokosing River. Bland and his wife, Linda, rent the field to a neighboring farmer and keep a small herd of pygmy goats and llamas, the latter of which provide fleece for an artist friend.
The couple moved to Mount Vernon from Tallmadge about 13 years ago so they could have a home and studio on one property, Linda Bland said. The location in central Ohio is also more accessible to some of the art shows where they sell his work, she said.
In 2005 they started offering workshops as a way of supplementing their income in winter, the off season for shows in the North. Linda Bland said they were inspired by a friend who offers weeklong Windsor chair workshops and realized metal sculpture was a faster process that lent itself to single-day classes.
The Blands strive to make each workshop an event, complete with a gourmet lunch that Tom Bland prepares the day before. They even have guest quarters in their home so students who travel long distances can arrive the previous day and stay overnight.
Last weekend, five would-be metal artists turned out to try their hands at making metal garden gates — Sherilyn Medkeff and husband Bruce Russell of Cuyahoga Falls, Joanie and Todd Muhlfelder of Mantua and Denise Kordie of Plymouth, Mich.
After an overview of the tools they’d be using and a lesson in safety, the students jumped into the projects eagerly. That’s not uncommon, Tom Bland said. About 65 percent of the students are women, and most show little fear of wielding tools that include a welder and a flame-shooting plasma cutter.
He did have his doubts about one recent participant, a woman who arrived sporting an expensive manicure. “Man, she dove in,” he said. “She was on it.”
Kordie used all her weight to pull down the lever of a massive 19th-century shear so she could cut a metal bar into smaller pieces, but she still needed help from Tom Bland’s assistant, nephew J.J. Raddell of Stow, to make the slice. The metal gave way with a bang, startling the others in the room.
“They make it look so easy,” Kordie said with a smile before she resumed wrestling with the lever for the next cut.
The projects use new steel and recycled copper from a scrap yard that knows what Bland likes and puts aside those pieces for him. “It’s like a drug deal. They call and say, ‘The copper’s in,’ “ Linda Bland said in an exaggerated whisper.
As the students took turns bending steel into rounds and cutting copper sheets into circles, the workshop pulsed with commotion. Neil Young’s Helpless wafted through a stereo speaker over the hiss of the plasma cutter, while a shower of sparks flew as metal was welded to metal.
Russell grinned as he took in the activity around him. “This reminds me of eighth-grade shop class,” he said.
What seemed to give the students the most trouble, though, wasn’t knife-edged or hot or otherwise threatening. It was a piece of chalk and a Sharpie.
That’s what they used to sketch the sun and moon faces on a copper disk that would become the centerpieces of their gates. Chalk held lightly in her fingers, Medkeff drew and erased, drew and erased until the features approximated the ones in Tom Bland’s prototype. Todd Muhlfelder, meanwhile, struggled to create his own design, finally giving up and turning the copper over to start again on the other side.
But eventually, slowly, the gates started to take shape. The drawings become the patterns for cut-out designs. Metal bars were bent into waves and welded to form sun rays.
Even the mistakes were embraced. “Oh, well, it’s just part of the character,” Medkeff said as she regarded the extra line she’d accidentally cut into her design.
By late afternoon, the scraps and bars had become works of usable art, to be carted home to the participants’ own gardens.
That’s the beauty of a one-day workshop, Linda Bland said. The process is brief enough that students finish before they’ve stopped having fun, and they can take their work with them.
But to Raddell, the joy is in the process.
“It’s just cool,” he said. “People get to use tools they’ve never used before. They get to talk to people they’ve never met before. … It’s a blast.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.