Artist to Artist | Interview by Rocío Heredia - Guest Artist Heath Satow, Sculptor

Interview with Heath Satow, Sculptor

Conducted by © Rocío Heredia

Would you tell me what brought you to California?
This area has much more support for public Art, which is my main interest as an artist.

What has been your experience as an artist in Los Angeles?
It has been a slow process getting into an entirely new place, but things are going well. We have been out here for one year now, and I've already been "short-listed" three times for large public Art projects in the area, which I think is promising - especially since I only began applying for them about eight months ago. I feel like my style of work has a much larger audience here. The people seem to love metal and love contemporary work made from metal. The tastes where I used to live tended much more towards the traditional, which was just not for me.

Where are you from originally?
Originally, a little town in Ohio. My family moved to North Carolina when I was only seven years old, so that's where I really grew up.

When did you become interested in Art?
I always had a crayon or scissors in my hands, from the time I was old enough to hold things. My mother has this great photo of me when I was only about four years old, and in it I am passed out asleep in my pajamas, but I still have scissors in one hand, cut paper in the other, and I am completely surrounded by a mess of crayons and paper strewn everywhere. Every piece of paper had something scribbled on it and parts cut away.

How did you discover you had a talent for sculpture?
My real interest for a long time was drawing, and I considered becoming a professional illustrator. I also had quite an interest in building functional things like kites when I was a kid, as well as furniture and things like that as I got older. I never combined the ideas of "Art" and building things, though, until I took a sculpture studio my second year in design School. My first project had an amazing response - I loved building it and people had such a stronger reaction to the piece than anything I had ever drawn. I was hooked from that point on.

What was your first work of Art? I'm curious to know if you have a picture of this work?
The piece I described above was my first real piece of sculpture, and it was a barbed wire teddy bear that I still own. It has little bits of stuffing scattered through the interior, and a music box that used to play "March of the Teddy Bears" until I flipped the keys around in it so it would play all out of tune. It is called "Love for an Abused Child" - for the class we had to do a piece about a highly emotional subject, so I did a lot of research and found that abused children sometimes tend to see the abuse as a form of affection. That idea affected me strongly, so that's where the idea for this painful children's toy came from.

At what age did you begin to consider a career as a sculptor?
After that sculpture studio in college, I got a job that summer as a "grunt" worker (low paying, low-skill position) in a sculpture studio. Just during that first summer, I was given more and more responsibilities, and I loved the job even though it was very hard work. I decided then that I wanted to continue on this path. I worked there every summer and during breaks until I graduated, and then I went to work there full time. In a few months, I was put in charge of the studio when the previous head of sculpture left.

Where did you acquire your Art design knowledge and skills?
I formed a valuable basic understanding of design and Art in Design College, and supplemented that education working in the studio during summers. It was a good combination of an academic and real-world education.

From which University did you graduate?
The School of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. That is how I ended up in Raleigh.

Do you have a degree in Sculpture?
They did not have a specific degree in sculpture, so I graduated with an "Environmental Design" degree, with a concentration in sculpture. Their "Environmental Design" program was an open design degree that let you choose your own path. They would screen applicants to that department to make sure that you had a real goal, and that you weren't just in it to float around and lose focus.

Metal plays an essential function in your artwork. What was your first introduction to metalwork?
My first sculpture, really. At the School I went to, the wood shop was always full of people, but the welding shop was nearly empty. I started playing around in there since there was so much room, and fell in love with the material. The summer job I worked then also heavily used metal in its work.

What influences have driven your technique?
That's really hard to say. That sculpture studio job informed my sensibilities quite a bit, but I grew far beyond that once I left. I actually had to work at pulling myself away from some of the sculptural "rules" of that studio. I mostly look at Art and architecture a lot and see what works for my eye. When I see something I really like, I look at it for a long time to try and discover just why that piece or space works so well. I guess my primary goal is first to create an object that works well in a specific place, and the content informs the choice of object, but doesn't rule my decisions.

I wonder if you are influenced by a particular place or space around you?
My shop. I love to just hang out in the shop and look at my works in progress, pieces of scrap metal, my tools… everything has so much character that it's hard to not find some inspiration for the next piece.

Has anyone close to you had any influence in your work, your parents, teacher?
My father had the biggest influence on my decision to go into sculpture as a profession. Not directly, but it was the fact that he had the courage to move his family many, many miles and start all over just to pursue a dream of his. It didn't work out the way he hoped, but he always said he learned so much from the experience and was never sorry he did it. I love that attitude and I find strength in that. He also loves working with his hands, and I always admired that quality. My mother strongly supported my growth as an artist since she has always been a painter. No matter how little money we had, I always seemed to have Art supplies. Later in life, all my high School teachers told me I had a gift that I should pursue, so they really influenced my decision to go into design School.

Are there any contemporary, historical sculptors, or artists that you specifically admire?
Martin Puryear is probably my favorite contemporary artist. He creates beautiful objects that I can stare at for hours.

Where do your ideas come from?
That's hard to say. I always start by gathering imagery about the subject - searching on the Internet for images associated with words, with things. I fill my head with pictures. What do I want to convey? What sorts of shapes would work in this space? The two start coming together as I throw out certain ideas, strengthen some others, and add new ones. It all feels like a waste of time after a week or two, but then it usually comes together in a single burst, then the real idea is "there." Once that happens, I set about working out all the finer details.

As I see your works, I feel your perspective is exceptional. This perspective seems to get the spectator into the Art piece. How would you describe your sculpture?
Wow, another tough one. My main goal is to first create a beautiful object, something that will seduce you to stare at it, spend some time with it. Once that is accomplished, you actually have a chance to say something to the viewer. If you don't grab someone's attention immediately, seduce their eye, you will never get them to learn anything more about the piece. Any meaning in my work is subtle, and it takes some looking to "get it" for most pieces. That's not true for all my work, but most of it. That has been something I have been working towards for some time now. I guess that is how I try to "get the spectator into the Art piece" as you say.

While looking through your portfolio, I find you received a rather large Sculpture commission for the Raleigh Durham Airport. Will you please tell us about that?
I was invited to send slides to a Competition for a sculpture for the new terminal they are building. Out of many artists that sent in slides, they picked three of us to create presentations. I struggled with ideas for that project for two months; finally nailing down the idea that we rarely think anymore about how amazing it is that we can fly now. That was my goal then, to try to create a piece that related the "wonder" of flying. I wanted to liken it to a religious experience of sorts.

Would you please describe your design for "Dream of Flight," in both conceptual and technical terms?
Dream of Flight is a sculpture intended to remind us of a time before we soared among the clouds. A time when our ancestors dreamed of reaching the heavens and, for us as children, the awe we had for flight before experiencing our first take-off. The sculpture consists of three figures looking wistfully to the heavens, arms outstretched. Their reverent poses entice us to look with them at the sky above. As we gaze upward, their images materialize in the clouds. Today, air travel is so common that we tend to forget what an amazing thing it is to fly. This sculpture will serve to remind us of the wonder and awe the sky held for us before we learned to fly.
The floor design is a globe expressed in shades of grey terrazzo. Anchored to this floor will be three identical figures fabricated from 14 gauge 304 stainless steel with a patterned 40 grit grind finish. These sculptures will each weigh approximately 160 pounds. Above these figures on the floor will be a frame structure anchored to the center of the roof beams. The frame will have a trussed main structure fabricated from 1/4" 304 stainless steel rod. This entire structure will have a brushed finish and will weigh approximately 220 pounds. Suspended from this frame will be 1000 pieces of waterjet cut stained glass. Of these, 740 will be light blue streaked glass and 260 uniform cobalt blue. The combined weight of these pieces will be approximately 85 pounds.

Is Dream of Flight your biggest artwork to date?
It is my largest single piece to date, yes, both in size and budget.

I think that the day of the Opening of the Raleigh Durham Airport will be wonderful! I wonder if am I invited to North Carolina?
Of course! It will be a while, though. Due to construction delays, the piece won't be installed until late 2003, even though I have almost finished building the piece.

Tell us what role recognition and Awards have on your career?
None, really… I don't pursue either. I am honored when I get an Award or I am recognized for my work in some way, but I never seek that out. I try to win public Art projects so I can make something large and beautiful, I simply cannot afford to do work that big unless someone else pays for it. Even if I were wealthy enough to do that, I would still enjoy the challenge of creating pieces for specific places, I enjoy the interaction of art and architecture.

What have been the favorite projects to date in your career, and why?
One of my favorites was the "Whole Wheat" piece, for a number of reasons. The clients were a joy to work with, and the space was a real challenge. After it was done, it seemed that everything came together perfectly - the scale was right, the piece "sang" for me, and people seemed to truly love it. I think the airport project will be my new favorite once it is finished - I am very excited about seeing it all come together in the space.

Let's talk about one of my favorite subjects, what do you think about Art Critics?
I can take them or leave them - when they say something nice, they are great people, of course. Seriously, though, I became friends with a critic once that kept writing nice things about my work, and it was good to hear all her insights about what she saw in my work. It helped me to see the way other people see my work. In general, I like to hear what people have to say, good or bad. If I am trying to convey something in my work, it's good to know if it really is getting across.

I know that you're involved in architectural projects as well. How did you become interested in architectural designs?
The sculpture studio I worked for before I went out on my own was part of an architecture firm. So, a lot of the work I did also involved creating architectural elements. I still enjoy doing some of this sort of work, but my main focus is public art now.

Do you prefer working in large scale?
In general, the answer is yes. It is such a challenge to work at a large scale, and not just in a physical sense. The real challenge is getting the size right - too small and it gets lost, too large and it becomes overwhelming. It all depends on the space, and it's a balancing act to get it just right. Of course, you are sometimes limited in size by the budget of the project, and that becomes a whole other part to the challenge!

Talk us about your sculpting technique. What are the materials that you prefer to handle?
Mostly stainless steel these days. It is such a durable material, and requires no protective coating. I like the fact that I can just let the metal be itself. It is also a dream to weld, it welds very smoothly. It is difficult to work with in some ways because it is such a strong material, but the other qualities make up for that. That's why I rarely use aluminum - it is a pain to weld, it isn't nearly as tough as stainless, and I don't like the color. Stainless feels more "real" to me.

Would you say that the huge majority of your work to date has been in stainless steel?
Actually, I have done a lot of work in mild steel and copper, and I like both of those materials for their ability to take patinas. You can get a lot of color even in steel with different kinds of rust and other patinas.

What advantage do you experience in the use of a maquette?
I prefer to make models out of real materials when possible. For instance, if a sculpture will be made from stainless steel, I like to make the maquette out of stainless steel as well. It gives a better feel for the real thing, the way it reflects light, the way it feels. It also gives me a chance to actually show some of my metal working skills at the same time. It tells the client that I can do quality work even at this small scale.

Is the computer used for your projects?
Extensively. Once I have a basic idea, I sketch them on the computer in 3D computer assisted design software, like architects and industrial designers use. This gives me a chance to get a better feel for the scale of a piece, and I can do endless variations on a theme until I get it right, without wasting any real materials. I also use the finished 3D models to create renderings for presentations and working drawings when I start building the real thing. Using the 3D software, I can work out every last detail before I enter the shop. Of course, I always leave things open to change if I feel something different would be better once I am working on the sculpture in the shop. These are usually small details, but they sometimes make all the difference. This is just one advantage of fabricating the work yourself, instead of designing something and handing it over to a large foundry to build. God is in the details, right?

Do you believe the computer has allowed you to do things you may not have been able to do without it?
Certainly. I am able to make far more complex forms than ever before, and do them in an affordable way. Without the computer, I would be forced to create full-scale models and those are expensive and hard to change. Like I said before, in the computer I can do endless variations in much less time, and I can avoid wasting a lot of materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. That brings up another point about why I like to work in metal - every little scrap is 100% recyclable. There is very little waste created in the making of my work.

Would you talk about the fabrication of the work? Do you execute all the construction yourself and why?
As I said before, I am sort of a control freak when it comes to my work. I suppose it would be like handing your children over to someone else to raise them. By doing all the work myself, I am able to control the quality of every weld, of every bend. Everything is exactly as I have chosen it to be. That would be impossible to do if I gave my work to another fabricator.

I fear that there may be health risks related to your work, are there and how do you handle that?
Yes, that's something that you accept when you enter this business. There are welding fumes that you should avoid breathing, there are dusts from grinding the metal, there is noise that damages your ears, and all you can do is try to take the proper precautions like wearing a respirator when needed. Goggles, gloves, hearing protection, etc. are also necessary. I still haven't had a day where there wasn't some wound on my hands healing, either a cut or a burn. I have about twenty or thirty permanent scars on my hands alone. Sometimes gloves just seem to get in the way and you have to work without them. Even with goggles, I have had chunks of metal surgically removed from my eyes many times. It's not a field for those that can't handle the emergency room!

There seems to be a lot of passion and humor in all your work. What do you consider that makes your work unique?
I suppose it's just that I don't purposely strive towards any particular style. My primary goal is to figure out what will work best in a space. What will be the best piece here? Certainly, you could probably relate my work to some styles, but I never feel like I have to follow a certain path. My style has followed a very organic path that has grown with the types of commissions I get.

What do you enjoy most about working in this medium?
I enjoy so much about it. The biggest thing for me is the satisfaction of seeing something that started in my head, out of thin air, now out in the world for other people to enjoy. This thing grows inside me, I create it, and it goes out into the world. I guess it's like giving birth in a way, except I have much more control over the face it presents to the world! It's just like magic to me every time, I am always amazed that these things didn't exist before, and here they are now - sprung from my mind and my hands. It's really a cool thing to experience…

Has there ever been a time when you wanted to put your work as a sculptor on hold, while you try another Art technique?
No. I have always loved working in the shop so much that I have a hard time even vacationing for more than a few days. I like to take time off, but I always want to "play" in the shop.

How have you found the popularity of the Internet to affect your work?
Mostly it has enabled me to see other people's sculpture all over the world, and share my work with them. I think the ability to share our individual visions betters us all as artists.

Do you consider the Internet as having a positive or negative influence on Art?
Very positive for the reasons I just gave above.

What is your ultimate ambition as sculptor?
I am doing it now… creating things that people enjoy. I would like to have more freedom to pick and choose which projects I do, but right now I usually need to take any large project that presents itself. I certainly reject projects when they ask me to copy someone else's work, or when I feel I am just not the right person for the job. I just want to always be working in my shop and making a decent living. Anything else like recognition and respect are side perks that come with being successful in this field. Whenever someone says something like, "you are going to be famous," I always reply that I have no interest in that; I just want to be comfortable and make beautiful things.

What challenges have you found in your work?
Getting out of bed the next morning after a particularly tough day in the shop is sometimes the biggest challenge! One thing I do a lot is use repetitions of forms in my work, and sometimes I get tired of making the same piece over and over, like the grains in the wheat sculpture. There are well over 200 grains in that piece and all of them are very similar. But, once the piece is done, it all seems worth the effort.

What are your immediate plans? Are you working in a new project?
I am still working on the airport sculpture at the moment, and I am working on proposals for a few more projects.

Finally, What advice would you give a young sculptor just starting and wondering where to start?
Find another sculptor or foundry that has been in the business for a long time and apprentice there if possible. There are so many ways you can go wrong, and it's nice to learn the ropes from someone with experience. Work for minimum wages sweeping the shop floor if you have to, that's essentially how I started. It's a tough way to make a living, and it will help to learn from someone else's mistakes rather than making them yourself.

Dear Heath, me and I am sure our viewers, appreciate your time and responses to my questions.

::: Heath Satow, Sculpture and Architectural Elements :::

::: BTDesign Art Gallery ~ Permanent Exhibition :::

Interview with Heath Satow

Copyright Note: Interview © June 2002-2007 Rocío Heredia. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction is forbidden. Artworks ©  Heath Satow. All Rights Reserved.Top Banner by Barbara Tampieri © BTDesign Art Gallery. All Rights Reserved. Throughout this website all artworks, images, text files, or other material is all copyrighted by Rocio Heredia and/or named authors, and may not be used elsewhere on the net, within other websites, or in print, without the written permission of the site owner and/or author. For express permission to copy articles, please contact us.