2018 was a great year for Brightwire Designs. I developed a lot of new relationships, and I had my first gallery show, at the Annex Gallery. Although I didn’t do any art shows at all — the kind where you pay a hundred bucks to set up your tent among a million other artists on a rainy day in downtown Hipsterville — I managed to sell twice the amount of art I sold in 2017, when I schlepped my setup to half-a-dozen art extravaganzas. Most of them cost me more than I made, and I frequently returned exhausted, dejected, smelling of scented candles and roasted almonds... I did generate some good followup business from those shows, if not a lot of cash-and-carry sales. Honestly, I enjoyed meeting people and talking about my stuff, and figuring out which products and styles people are interested in.
Up until a few months ago the utility of my work was mostly limited to my lampshades and pendant fixtures. The division between lighting and art/decor is a clear one, in my mind. A sparkly wire ball is only a piece of art until you put a light in it, at which point it becomes a lampshade. It’s no longer art because it now has a utilitarian purpose. The misunderstanding around this concept is how terms like “functional art” have emerged. I don’t use that term. If I’m trying to develop a “product,” or something that can be mass-produced, I start off with prototypes. If I’m making something I won’t make exactly the same way, again, then I call it art. Unless, of course, I put a lightbulb in it. Then it’s a lampshade! There were three breakthroughs for me in 2018, all of which edged me closer to creating products that are as useful as they are beautiful.
MIG Welding Wire
I was pretty excited to get into Franklin, Michigan’s Art in the Village show, in 2017, but I only made a couple sales that weekend. A couple months later, I got a phone call from a guy I never even spoke to at the show. He’d seen my stuff, grabbed a business card and kept moving. I told him upfront I had zero experience pulling off anything like what he was asking me to do, which was basically an applique of copper wire surrounding his massive fireplace. Aside from the fact that I couldn’t picture exactly how I’d secure the layers of wire directly to the wall, I had never worked with copper wire, except when using it as a temporary twist-tie for constructing various shapes. What I ended up using was not even copper wire as you would think of it, but a stiffer steel MIG welding wire with a copper plating. I came across it at a local welding supply store, and after the client approved it, I bought huge spool of the stuff. The client was happy with the end result of the project, as was I, although I can’t imagine being hired again to do another one of these. Who knows? Maybe MIG wire fireplace appliques will become a thing. Despite the seemingly obscure job I was hired to do, I have to thank my client; He pushed me to explore a new technique, but more important was my own discovery of MIG welding wire as a great material to work with. The stiff springiness of MIG wire allows me to create shapes similar to those I make from hard brass wire but at a much larger scale, which opens the door to many new artistic approaches and product ideas.
When I started making bowls out of brass wire people would ask, “Can use it for anything?” And I would basically shrug and say, “Sure, I can sell you some wire balls to go in it. Or the mail, perhaps.” I’m certainly not the first person to make and sell bowls not intended to hold anything. The market opens up considerably however, if you can guarantee your bowl will magically transform itself from a piece of art to an object of utility, simply by being stronger and more durable. The first bowl I brought to Supreme Welding and Powder Coating was small, only about ten inches wide by three inches deep, and weighed about 60 grams. After receiving a coat of black and cooked in a 400 degree oven for awhile, the bowl emerged completely different. It was solid enough to resonate slightly when I thwacked it with my finger as if all the layers of wire had become one. It was strong enough to hold a five pound dumbbell without bending. I was impressed. I could actually USE this bowl for something. I thought about how powder coating would be a game-changer, in ways I didn’t even fully understand, but was eager to find out. I thought about the other things I made and wondered what I should try next.
I have spoken and written a lot about the material limitations of any artistic medium, and how I learned to work with the physical properties of brass wire. Early on in this journey I assumed everything I could make would strike a round, bulbous or at least curvy silhouette. And I was fine with that, until I found a way around it. The idea of doing panels didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Some of the other 3D shapes I’d done for a couple years had started out as flat mats of wire. Those mats, however, always had curved edges. They were either big ovals or odd, amoeba-shaped pieces. In order to create a faceted 3D shape from individual wire panels, I would have to figure out a way to transform the mats from shapeless blobs to perfect squares, rectangles, triangles etc., which I could then stitch together to make the 3D shape. My first really good example of this technique is hanging over the dining room table of a historical home, in Detroit’s Boston Edison district.
Now that my system is in place for creating geometrically perfect panels, I can bring to bear the other two “breakthrough” elements of 2018. A heavy duty panel made from MIG welding wire, for example, can be powder-coated for color and durability, and used for a variety of outdoor applications, which you can read about in my next post, probably called “New Products for 2019.”