the metal tamer
Author: Steve Henschel | Thursday, March 15, 2012
Karen Chapelle of Lucky 7 Steel
Turning rigid cold steel into works of elegant beauty is no easy job, but for Karen Chapelle the reward is worth the effort.
For nearly two decades Chapelle, now 41, has been melting, soldering, grinding and welding her ornamental and artistic metal works from her Toronto Lucky 7 Steel studios.
“I call it ornamental metal work,” said Chapelle of her current works. She got her professional start in metal work after graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in 1992, designing and creating props for theatre companies. Since then her works have grown into the realms of artistic sculpture and more recently functional, yet imaginative, decorative elements including garden and home decor such as coat racks crafted into trees and clocks of recycled steel parts.
“The most interesting thing about steel is it’s very rigid,” said Chapelle, noting with a little heat that once rigid and unbendable medium can become supple as clay.
“If you screw something up you can remelt it,” said Chapelle, adding, “it’s just sort of limitless.”
Chappelle stretches those limits with works ranging from the tiny to huge as she creates life-sized sculptures, furniture and even small mechanical toys.
“You can make something that looks so fragile that is actually structurally strong,” said Chapelle, who has recently started to make larger pieces.
While the steel may become supple with heat Chapelle explained it can be a bit of a tough go to work with.
“Physically it’s not easy,” she said, adding, “but I’m stubborn and I still really love it.”
“I haven’t suffocated yet so that’s good,” she noted, laughing.
“There aren’t many women that do this work,” said Chapelle, whose artist’s tool kit of plasma cutters, welders, a forge and grinders sounds more like that of a trades person.
“It’s a bit of a hard go,” she admitted, explaining that both artistic metal work and professional welding are still very much male dominated realms.
“You get faced with this prejudice,” she said, noting that many of the female trade welders she knows face a tough time working in male dominated shops.
She noted that this defiance of prejudice may be one reason that her work has gained a lot of traction in the LGBT community.
“I’m a member of that community myself,” added Chapelle, who can often be found combing scrap yards and alleys for materials.
“I’m a huge garbage picker,” she said, noting that she has a bit of a hoarding problem when it comes to her materials. She added that she has also established a network of contacts to supply her with materials to be recycled into works of art, a network that includes “a strange German mechanic.”
“I’ve got a little community of pickers,” said Chapelle, who admittedly is not much of a drawer and likes to design her works as they take form. While she has worked in metal since her time at OCAD she said her love of creative design started earlier in life with her grandmother.
“My grandmother was a big influence,” said Chapelle, remembering her grandmother’s fondness for “traditional women’s crafts” such as knitting.
With her grandmother’s influence Chapelle’s love of art started to take form in high school.
“I went to a great progressive school,” said Chapelle, recalling how the school brought in working artists to teach students.
“Had I gone to a traditional high school I’m no sure it would have thrown me this far,” she said, adding, “I was lucky.”
Chapelle explained that with age the tough work of taming metal to her design wishes is getting harder but explained that as long as she has the strength to do it she will. Recently she has began to focus more on commercial works such as home decor, garden ornaments and furniture, produced in collaboration with a Toronto based wood worker.
“I’m enjoying the furniture more than I thought,” said Chapelle, who is also interested in the world of automata: think of the type of mechanics that operate a gum ball machine. One such work is a candle holder she has constructed with a small arm that sweeps away the ash and wax automatically.
“I’m interested in that kind of stuff,” said Chapelle,
“There’s a lot of metal work out there, so I’m trying to push the boundaries a bit,” she said.
Chapelle noted that while she may be focussing more on the commercial she won’t be abandoning her most artistic sculpture works.
“I try and have at least one piece on the go, just for myself,” she said, pointing out the sculptures are the most figurative and expressive of her works.
“I’m just proud that I’m still able to do this,” she added.
For more information on Lucky 7 Steel and Chapelle’s works visit www.lucky7steel.com.
Author: Steve Henschel