October 11, 2012

The steel whisperer

David Stromeyer's monumental sculptures on exhibit in Burlington


---- — BURLINGTON — David Stromeyer is a steel whisperer.

He bends it every which way he can to create monumental sculptures, which test his limits and gravity.

Four of his modest-sized sculptures, exhibited in “David Stromeyer-Equilibrium: Career Retrospective” at the Firehouse Gallery this summer, will winter in City Hall Park.

“Rumba” evokes a party mood with its hustle and flow painted in metallic hues of magenta and spring green.

He has watched children climb all over it, play around it and play peek-a-boo.

“It’s hard to predict that as an artist,” said the Enosburg Falls resident. “You don’t know who is going to do what to what piece and how they are going to respond.”

“Rumba” brings together essential aspects of Stromeyer’s aesthetics.

“For many years, I have been interested in the creation of an interior space as well as an exterior form. I’m intrigued with that threshold. That is very clear in ‘Rumba,’ and others are more vague,” he said.

He strives to be honest with the material, selects its strongest scale and manipulates its segments to create something new.

“I became more confident and saw the possibilities of how I could push steel around and move it in a much more plastic way,” he said.

Once he conceived how he could do it, he built the tools.

“It’s not something that is easy to do. Steel fabricators would be at a loss of how to do that. The other aspect about that piece, I’ve been very interested in color. Many sculptors paint a piece red or black to give an overall look. I like to play with the ambiguity of color,” Stromeyer said.

“Rumba” reflects light differently, which impacts how the viewer perceives it.

“It’s slightly iridescent. I like to play with a palette that is quite ambiguous. I have pieces painted in two, three or four colors. And, certain colors reflect the adjacent color,” he said. “It just adds additional dimensionality to the piece. Choosing a color is a very tricky process. I wanted to read a certain mood of the form. I don’t want to fight with the form. Sometimes, I paint the edge an individual color separate from the surface color. I play around with the color. It’s a big component of the piece.”

He has lost count of the sculptures, 45 or so, in his 190-acre sculpture park and studio in Enosburg Falls.

“I’m on (my) 410th sculpture right now. I’m working on a series of three sculptures that are somewhat figurative in nature, not something I often delve into,” Stromeyer said.

The works are abstract. He has painted and finished two and will move them shortly out of the studio. They are figures interacting with each other.

“The third one we started will be three figures. That’s all I will do on that. That’s the way I tend to work. I get interested in something. Each work is completely unique. I may work a series, in this case three,” he said.

There are two twist pieces in his retrospective, and a third one was recently shown in Stowe.

His process for the twists began with throwing acrylic sheets in a convection oven, removing them and very quickly — 30 seconds or less — twisting the Plexiglas.

“I separate the endeavor of creating work from how I will build it,” he said.

Once he manipulates the form the way he wants it, he ponders how he did it and how he will do it 12 times larger in steel.

“That’s a very different question,” he said.

When contemplating steel, his concerns are the thickness of material to make it rigid enough, will it balance, what structural problems will he run into?

His analysis is not on a computer, but with paper patterns.

His most successful pieces give an effortless illusion.

“The pieces which look the easiest, the most accidental, are the most difficult to get that feel,” he said.

Most of his audience is not interested in how he does what he does. A reporter told him that she hated steel.

“Most people associate steel with columns and beams that hold up buildings. Buildings are pretty simple. You have the load of the structure, the dead load, and the people and equipment, the live load, and then you have to be aware of wind forces on the outside of the building. You may have some cross-bracing like you do in a house,” he said.

What Stromeyer achieves so elegantly is bending steel beyond its plastic limit.

“Which means once it’s bent, it stays in that position. You can bend a little bit, and it springs back. You bend it so much that it distorts. You change the whole property of the metal,” he said.

With each subsequent sheet of steel, he cantilevers components and torques the load on the original sheet. It gets complex. 

He does not have an engineering degree, but he has 40 years experience of pushing steel around.

“I have a dialogue with the material. I say, ‘This is what I want you to do. Can you do it?’”

He bends, shapes and braces the steel as needed to bend it to his vision.

“I don’t think it serves a benefit if you impose your will on the material,” Stromeyer said. “I like the first approach better.”

Email Robin Caudell:

IF YOU GO WHAT: "David Stromeyer -- Equlibrium: Career Retrospective." WHERE: Four large-scale sculptures in City Hall Park, which is behind Burlington City Arts, 135 Church St., Burlington. WHEN: Through the winter.