Artist makes metal her medium
July 2012 - If you happen to be traveling just outside Johnson City, Texas, you can’t miss the bull that appears to stand watch atop a 4-foot earthen mound at the corner of County Road 204 and Highway 290.
Sculpted from chromium-plated steel, mild steel and stainless steel, the bull—like Paul Bunyan’s animal companion, Babe the Blue Ox—is larger than life at 7 foot by 7 foot by 12 foot. The mix of metals and organic lines gives the beast a pent-up energy that makes one feel it’s about to lift a heavy steel hoof and take a step. The metal sculpture has generated quite a tourist following in the Texas hill country but most people who stop to take a look at the bovine behemoth are surprised to learn that its creator is artist Bettye Hamblen Turner who is 5 feet 3 inches tall and single-handedly sculpted the animal using just a few pieces of equipment. The Longhorn bull is one of five Turner sculpted between 2006 and 2008 and joins a series of life-size horses and a pony with an antler mane.
Turner says her formal training was in painting and interior design, but she nearly failed a sculpture class because of the coursework’s small scale. Her love for metals and career in sculpture would come much later. She went to work for Child Protective Services in Fort Worth, Texas. When her husband’s job moved the couple to Killeen, Texas, career burnout prompted Turner to consider a pottery course at Central Texas Community College while she decided what she wanted to do with the next phase of her life.
A registration problem caused her to take a second look at the course curriculum where she spotted a welding class. “I thought, ‘I need some patio furniture. I could take this class and make it myself,’” says Turner. “Since I had no experience, the registrar said I would need to talk with the welding professor. I took one look at him and thought, ‘He’ll never let me take this course.’ He looked like a retired rodeo star with a chaw of tobacco in his cheek and a handlebar mustache. But he turned out to be a wonderful teacher. I learned oxyacetylene and MIG welding and how to use a plasma cutter.”
When Turner and her husband moved again to the San Angelo area, they bought a house with a metal outbuilding on a sturdy, concrete foundation. “We bought the property for the outbuilding,” says Turner. “I knew as soon as I saw it the building was perfect for my studio.”
Because of her classes, Turner had discovered an affinity for metal and found she could combine her metalworking skill set with formal aspects of design to create unique sculptures that evolved under her hands. “Artists look for years for the right medium,” says Turner. “Metal is mine. I like the way it smells, the way it bends. When I weld, I know the metal is going to keep its shape.”
For an artist, scale can be as difficult to identify as medium, Turner adds. “My natural scale is large even though I am small,” she says. “I use overhead hoists in my studio to move pieces around that I’m working on.” But finding the right medium and scale weren’t the only challenges Turner faced. “Budding writers are told to write about what they know,” she says. “I grew up riding horses, so I decided to sculpt what I thought I knew about. I discovered I didn’t know as much about their anatomy as I thought so I asked a family friend who is a veterinarian a lot of questions.”
Attracted to complex shapes and rounded forms, Turner also needed to learn to fabricate. “I had no idea where to learn so I taught myself,” she says. “I annoyed every fabricator I could reach and studied online to find out what a metal sculpture could be in order to understand the parameters of the materials.”
Engineers told Turner it wasn’t possible for her to bend the complex shapes she was considering because slip rollers and presses only bend in one direction. So she developed her own unique hand-fabrication methods to produce them. Her first two horse sculptures, which she started in 2002, took one year to complete. “I learned a lot about fabricating and handling metal during that time,” she says. Working from the ground up and from the inside out, Turner bends ¼-inch round stock over a pipe armature, describing the contour of the subject in a 3-D line drawing. She uses butcher paper taped over the round stock, tracing the edge with a marker to make a pattern. She then cuts a piece from sheet metal, places it in a vise and bends it by hand.
On big bends or complex shapes, Turner’s go-to tool is a rosebud heating tip. “I don’t care for aluminum,” she says. “It’s lightweight and fairly easy to bend and it will take a translucent die color but it doesn’t respond well to heat. Stainless steel is one of my favorites because it holds a smoother bend than carbon steel. I don’t have to coat it with sealer. I can get a matte brush or high-polish finished, even achieve a faceted texture out of a weld bead; it’s like silver jewelry.” Turner sources carbon steel from a West Texas steel yard but also uses recycled metal. “I love recycled metal,” she says. “That’s what I started with because I needed a low-cost option at the time for materials.”
A leg injury in 2009 caused Turner to shift gears and work on smaller-scale horse sculptures (23 inch by 23 inch by 8 inch). New fabrication methods and the use of a waterjet may allow her to return to shaping metal with her signature open technique for a few larger-than-life sculptures. Turner’s new series features a figurative theme, though it retains some animal components. She plans to teach herself to copper electroplate antlers and other organic materials for these mixed metal sculptures.
Her pieces can be seen in their element on the 140 acres of the Johnson City-based Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch. “I’ve discovered that metal has its own voice,” says Turner. “Whether it’s a chrome bumper or other auto parts, the remnants of farm equipment, swing sets or a stack of new steel, I begin each piece by playing ‘What if?’ I pay attention to form, gesture and movement, but ultimately, I let the metal guide me.” MM