Metalscapes: Artist Sarah Sheffield talks copper, flame-torching and her new show at Bellamy

‘Bog Beauty’ by Sarah Sheffield features colored pencil on copper and is hanging at Bellamy Mansion through Mar. 20. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of artist)

WILMINGTON — Sarah Sheffield’s journey as a fine artist seems pre-destined: Her mother was an art teacher and her father, an industrial designer and engineer. Her grandfather was an architect and her uncle, a designer.

“So I grew up around it,” Sheffield said. “Foolish me went off into social services and soon knew it was a totally wrong field for me.”

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After heading back to grad school, she immersed herself into arts administration and worked in Raleigh before becoming the arts program supervisor for the Town of Cary. Sheffield would help plan the city’s arts programs, oversee two facilities and generally educate the public on art.

“I enjoyed it,” she said. “I’ve especially enjoyed using my art in travels, painting on location plein-air. It’s really enriched my life being able to see places through sitting still and looking.”

Sheffield ran a freelance art business and also was an exhibiting member of the Cary Gallery of Artists until a few years ago. In 2015, she and her husband moved back to his native Wilmington and settled in the Brooklyn Arts District. Sheffield decided to launch Sheffield Arts Studio and Gallery as well.

“I highlighted my work and guest artists, both accomplished and emerging,” Sheffield said. “But I closed the gallery with Covid-19 because it is small, and I really couldn’t maintain social distancing. Now, it is my studio space. I will take appointments when Covid is beaten.”

Covid also shut down the opening of her show, “Outer Limits,” with artist Elena Wright at Bellamy Mansion. It was scheduled to open in March 2020, after being on the calendar since 2018. One year later, the second floor of the Bellamy is covered in more than 40 pieces of art of various sizes, media and prices ($75 and up), as “Outer Limits” is now on display through Mar. 20.

“I wanted my work to be all new,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield features painted metalscapes, as well as sculptural pieces and a few on paper. She calls her work complementary to Wright’s glass, paper and mixed-media art, in that colors are compatible and materials reflective.

Port City Daily interviewed Sheffield about her craft and the intricacies of working with metal.

Port City Daily (PCD): How did you get into metal work, exactly? 
Sarah Sheffield (SS): I took a metals class nearly 40 years ago, but didn’t want to go fully into that with a young child at home. For many years, I was an arts teacher and then oil painter. As a painter I started painting on copper panels, which is a very old method. It’s very archival and gives a nice warm glow to the work. I’ve always liked a harder surface under my brush, rather than canvas.

Then Nan Pope of Cameron Art Museum asked me to enter “Illumination,” the lantern festival — it might have been the first year they offered it. I was stunned as I wasn’t a 3D person, but she encouraged me.

It set me on a path of wanting to bring drawing and metal together in a more dimensional way.

PCD: Can you take me through the process of one of your pieces in the show?
SS: It is difficult to pick one that is representative because the pieces are so different in technique.

“How My Garden Grows” (bees, hives, flowers) is approximately 27.5-inches-by-21-inches, all copper, etched and flame-torched. It is assembled in a series of 3-inch-by-3-inch copper pieces. Each piece to be etched had to be scrupulously sanded and cleaned, the designs transferred onto the metal and resist applied, then each plate floated in an acid bath for an hour or so. Then cleaned again and polished and have either Liver of Sulphur or an ink applied and wiped off to bring forth the design, then sealed.

The torched pieces had to be similarly cleaned and flame-torched to bring out a pattern and then also sealed.

Finally, each piece was assembled with hand made O-rings.

Sarah Sheffield’s ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ is 27.5-inches-by-21-inches, on copper, etched and flame-torched. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of artist)

PCD: What does “resist apply” mean?
SS: Resist can be any material like asphaltum (a tar like substance) or vinyl or oil marker that sticks to the metal. Where you put it prevents the acid from eating the metal. You place resist where you want the design to stay raised.

PCD: How many hours did it take you to do “How My Garden Grows”? 
SS: People are always interested in this but it is not simple to answer. Probably took from start to finish 1-1 1/2 months but that is because you have to stop and start at different stages for etching to happen (1-1 1/2 hours per two plates). Lots of prep and clean up not included. Drying time for sealants. Design time and transferring of design and applying resist can easily take the best of a week with a piece this size. Making the O-rings and hand-attaching, I remember, took two days! The hangers at the top had to be sized just right to get to hang close to even and be decorative.

PCD: What materials do you use when you work with metal?
SS: Almost exclusively copper right now. I’ve loved copper since my mother gave me copper jewelry as a child — but sometimes aluminum. I will probably branch out.

If you are asking what tools I use: hammers, files, torches, acids, pliers, anvils, drills … oh, my! I’ve always loved tools — my father’s daughter.

PCD: Do you paint on the copper as well?
SS: At least one in the show piece was oil paint on aluminum, some were ink on metal, some colored pencil on metal, etc.

PCD: How did the Covid downtime inspire you (or not)?
SS: A lot of artists have struggled during the off time because we haven’t had the inspiration of being together or being able to see other shows. Since I had worked so intensely on this show up through spring 2020, I took some production time off. I concentrated on just sketching and learning some more metal techniques from YouTube. 

PCD: Do you think it changed your work at all?
SS: Based on some things I’ve looked at and read about in this odd period, I plan to try more free-standing metal, as well as incorporating traditional enameling in my wall hangings.

“Outer Limits,” featuring the art of Sarah Sheffield and Elena Wright, will be on display at Bellamy Mansion Museum through March 20.

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