Scratching the antagonizing creativity itch

There are distinct phases of the creative process that are frustrating. Twitchy. Murky. Irritating. I think of this as ‘brain rash’ – it makes me slightly uncomfortable, out of sorts, squirmy. These are the problem-solving moments, when the connection between finished art and conceptual idea is the most tenuous. When ‘what’s in my head’ is distinctly different than what has emerged with physical form under my hand.

For sure, sometimes that difference is a nice surprise (giving rise to secret doubts about the power of my imagination, after all). More often, the difference is distressing, inducing the aforementioned brain-rash.

My most recent case of brain rash has turned out all right, but only after navigating the twitchy out-of-sorts period.

For more than a year, I have relished the idea of making a tree sculpture evocative of hoarfrost: the ice-fog condition that coats everything in magisterial, otherworldly whiteness.

Hoarfrosted trees

Trees coated with hoarfrost

The pearlization of the glass flowers turned out great; the tree too; then I got to the stage of applying the hoarfrost. I wanted delicate, transitory, sparkly contrasted drama. What I got was pure disco.

Silvered tree

Hoarfrost tree with all-over silver paint

After I finished with the silver paint, a vague case of brain rash began. Low levels of irritation. The silver was cool, but not quite… right. Too uniform, taking away the hand-made-ness of the piece. Then I looked back at my original ‘inspiration’ hoarfrost photo, and discovered the key to soothing my rash: contrast. More precisely, lack of it. Hoarfrost is arresting and dramatic because the tree trunks and lower branches stay black, while the tree’s extremities get coated in frost. My rash receded over the course of a face-masked hour spent with nail polish remover, scrubbing away most of the silver on the bottom, giving the tree branches a transition from nearly-bare metal to fully-silvered tips.

Finished hoarfrost tree

De-silvered hoarfrost tree with satisfying tonal contrast

Another case of brain rash, nicely soothed.

Freshly-ground steel, anyone?

The branches and stems of my plant sculptures are made of steel rod. The rod’s natural form is perfectly smooth, like a wood dowel or the barrel of a pen. I like my sculptures to have an organic, twisty look, like they actually ‘grew’ out of the earth but happen to be made of metal. The smooth steel rod looks too manufactured, so before I can use it to make a sculpture, I grind the surface to give it texture and the ‘twisting’ appearance.

Grinding isn’t as hazardous as welding or glassworking; there are no flammable materials or unsafe fumes. Still, it’s smelly and oh so filthy – the grinding action abrades the smooth surface, and that nice twisty look I like means smooth steel has to shed millions of little steel ‘dust’ specks first.

I use a high-RPM angle grinder to roughen up the steel and get it twisty. I have to wear earplugs to protect against the decibel level of the grinder, and full-shield goggles to protect against the flying steel ‘dust’.


It’s not my favorite part of making my plant sculptures; I think of it as ‘grunt work’ since it’s repetitive, physical and less creative. But sometimes, after a long day at work (where my marketing job makes use of – and sometimes temporarily exhausts – my creativity), a little ‘grunt work’ fits the bill.

Then, when I’m ready to be more contemplative and creative, I have a nice pile of twisty ground steel, ready to go!

And I’m not even a beer baron

Many of the Milwaukee beer barons’ houses had grand ironworked gates, which I learned about when studying the work of master blacksmith Cyril Colnik. Being a welder isn’t exactly the same as being a blacksmith, but I was so entranced by the twisted linear beauty of ironwork, I wanted to try my hand at it. First were our mail boxes.


Next up is new ironwork-style house numbers for our front door. The current numbers are small and, being white on the light-beige door, hard to read. I have a spot all picked out, at the bottom of our screen door.


While we were staying at Hotel Stebbins, our favorite rest stop in Algoma, I spotted a pattern I’d like to use on the sides of the numbers.


I’ve been thinking about doing this for years, and now I’m finally starting it!

Art will happen, even in the cold

I’m a true Midwestern girl: I like my change of seasons, including winter when everything sleeps. Winter means changes in my routine as an artist. There’s less light to photograph my finished pieces. And my studio ventilation system sucks air directly from the outside.


My ventilated studio: grey welding curtain on the left, double-fan system at top, and steel-covered work table at the bottom.

Whenever I work with glass, I need to ventilate, since the MAPP gas torch gives off carbon monoxide as a byproduct.
It’s worth it to make my little glass flowers. I also ventilate — no matter what time of year — when I’m spraying aerosols (paint, glue etc) and when I’m welding with my oxy-acetylene torch.

Working in the winter-time studio means extra steps to my ‘protective gear’ getup, to make sure I stay warm and focused!