Steel breathes new life into one metal sculptor’s work
May 2013 - In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a colorful, eagle-like creature that, once it’s reached the end of its life, ignites itself in a fit of flames. As quickly as the phoenix is reduced to ash, from the ash rises a newborn phoenix. At Angela St. Andre’s studio, The Iron Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Utah, it is the steel that, when ignited by the warmth of a welding flame, is reborn into whimsical metal art.
A passion realized
St. Andre’s passion for metal sculpting began in college. “I was actually working on a degree in biotechnology,” she says. “But one of the things I always did during my semesters is I would take a class in something that I was interested in that had nothing to do with my degree.” Her school’s basic metal sculpting class immediately caught her attention. “I thought, ‘This looks kind of cool. I’ll try this out. I’ve never done this before.” It didn’t take long for her to realize this craft was the perfect fit. “I absolutely loved everything about the class and working with metal and welding, and I spent the next five years or so just taking the basic metal sculpting class.”
After school, she moved to Arizona where she found a college that also offered metalworking classes. “I played around in them, making things. And then in 2010, my parents said, ‘If you really want to do this, we’ll help you start your own business’.”
With that, Iron Phoenix was born. St. Andre started the company in 2010, and it’s now celebrating its third year. The company’s name has particular significance to St. Andre because it was named after her first metal creation. “During my first semester, the teacher showed us how to use all the basic equipment and then said, ‘OK, go have fun,’” she says. “So the very first thing I ever made and designed was this phoenix wall hanging. It was flat and had layers for the wings and body and head, and then I set it on this big gear from a vehicle. That was the first thing I ever designed, so when I got my business started I figured, ‘What better name to name it than the first thing I created?’”
Currently, St. Andre is balancing both her new company and a job in the restaurant industry, which helps pay her bills. “I end up working in my sculpture business about half of my week,” she says. “Most of the money I make in my business goes into keeping my business running.”
St. Andre follows a simple philosophy when it comes to metal sculpting: “How can I make the designs as simple as possible, but still look detailed? I usually start there and make a lot of flat patterns with notches or creases and things that can be folded to give it shape,” she says.
Once the pattern is complete, St. Andre traces it onto a piece of sheet metal. “Then I cut them out and start bending them. As I go along I’ll adjust the pieces, especially if something’s too big or too small or I need to trim parts off.” For her, the key is to alter and adjust as she goes along. “I’m very much winging it and seeing how it goes together, especially on the big parts. I seldom use paper patterns on large sculptures just because it’s hard to try and visualize how everything will try and fit together correctly beforehand. I’ll start with a base, and I’ll just start building onto it and fitting everything as I go along.”
St. Andre has spent the majority of her time working with steel. “It can be a little bit tough to bend, I usually work with a lot of sheet metal and small round bar, but it’s tough and strong,” she says. “It doesn’t break easily and it holds its weight well.” And if something does break, she can easily weld it back together or use a hammer to get the desired shape.
From a rented welding shop at a construction company, St. Andre has the tools she needs to sculpt her delicate metal works. “I have a Miller dual-powered MIG welder. It’s really nifty,” she says. “I like it because the power outlet is designed for 110 volts and 220 volts, so it can literally plug into your wall at home and weld just about anything you want.” She also works with a Hypertherm plasma cutter. “It’s this tiny thing. I even have a shoulder strap so you can throw it over your shoulder and carry it. It’s got the dual-power setting so you can plug it into your wall at home, and it will cut just about anything.” St. Andre also has a vise, an assortment of hand tools and an angle grinder. For her, hand tools are essential because as everything she does is either hand bent or hammered on an anvil.
A bit of whimsy
A lot of her sculptures are comprised of scrap metal—a source that came about when it began to collect in her studio. “When you cut out patterns on your sheet metal, you always have little bits left over,” she says. “I just had piles, and I didn’t want to throw them away because they are still good metal. So the inspiration for all these scrap animals was wondering what I was going to do with all this scrap. I knew I needed to make something.”
St. Andre currently is working on her largest project to date. “My aunt actually requested this big dragon. She wanted a mama dragon and a baby dragon. Mama dragon is about halfway built, and already, at the top of her neck, she is standing at about 6 1/2 feet tall, so she will probably be about 7 1/2 feet tall or so when she is done.” The baby dragon will be welded to the top of a flagpole with mama dragon looking up at her pup. “Once I’m done building it, she’s going to go through and paint them and run lights up inside them so they will glow at night.” St. Andre already has spent more than 50 hours on this project.
An active imagination
From scrap metal turtles to whimsical dragons, St. Andre clearly has an inspiration. “I like animals and creatures, that’s what I tend to gravitate towards with my art.” On her website she shares her passion for drawing, a talent she’s enjoyed since childhood. “I was always sitting on the floor, hunched over a piece of paper, pencil in hand, with the TV playing in the background.”
While many children draw the familiar—trees, flowers, animals, St. Andre’s mind was taking her on different adventures. “When I would sit down and set pencil to paper I would draw whatever came to mind—dragons, dinosaurs, creatures with horns and scales and fangs!” She credits her “voracious book reading” for her active imagination—an imagination that has served her well and will continue to serve her well in future endeavors. “I’ve been considering trying to make a sea dragon wall sculpture. A big one,” she says. “I’ve got a bucket of spoons, knives and assorted silverware because I haven’t done a lot with silverware in sculpture so I want to try something just a little bit different than what I normally do.” An active imagination and a talent for metal sculpting is the true magic behind The Iron Phoenix. MM