Steel, blowtorches, and a little trash talk

Metal Works
By ABIGAIL CROCKER  |  September 23, 2009


HOT STUFF A welder at work.

At the Steel Yard, arts center and business incubator for the metal-minded, a molten hot contest this past weekend.

It was the second annual Iron Chef Competition -- a game pitting artist against artist, blowtorches in hand, in a breakneck race to produce the snazziest sculpture.

Four teams competed in four rounds of competition, the victorious chosen by three chef-hat-wearing judges. Restricted to sledgehammers, torches and chop saws, welders got 40 minutes to complete each round. Some onlookers smoked corn cob pipes in a bid to mask the smell of oxidizing iron.

The judges doled out design challenges with plenty of leeway: a simple phrase (like "bridge the gap" or "gradient") guided the work and a special ingredient (like a bucket of rivets) had to play a central role. Welders outlined schematics on red chalkboards and then got to it -- smashing, assembling and fitting the pieces.

There was, perhaps, some excessive hammer action for the benefit of the audience, sitting in truck beds and scattered lawn chairs. "We're creating some drama, some suspense for the people," said David Zitnick, member of team Cutler and Co.

A single strand of caution tape roped off the competition pit from the observation area. Behind laid a "pantry" that contained ingredients like metal wire and empty gas canisters -- the tops lopped off to ensure no gas remained. Emcee Dave Sharp noted that gas-filled canisters can propel through brick walls if welded.

Audience members were also repeatedly reminded to avert their eyes from the arc, or orb of light emitted during the welding process. Prolonged viewing can damage eyesight. "I have no more retinas," said one audience member during one of the final rounds.

Because the welders were supplied with only the essentials, they had to get a little innovative. No drills were available; workers had to use blowtorches to punch holes through the metal. And there was the occasional equipment breakdown inciting angry outbursts from frenzied team members.

"Faulty equipment! Damn you Steel Yard," said David Cole, leader of Cutler and Co. "I should have been an accountant."

The works were auctioned off at the end of the match to benefit the Steel Yard, a Sims Avenue non-profit. But if the competition had a noble aim, that didn't stand in the way of a little trash talk.

During a sudden-death round, with Joy Division playing over the loudspeakers, team leaders Anna Shapiro and Cole got 10 minutes to construct a piece of artistry that exemplified the state of Rhode Island. Cole made an anchor-shaped door-knocker. Shapiro made a two-dimensional heart with wires sprouting 360 degrees.

Shapiro said her love for Rhode Island inspired the piece.

"And it sits on your desk," she finished.

"And it will poke your eye out," jabbed Cole.

Some welders left a bit heated. Dan Neff, of team Ximedica, said artist Monica Shinn was able to sweet talk the judges into a victory over his squad in the first round.

"Monica Shinn could make poop on a stick and it would be art," joked Neff.

Shinn's team ultimately faced off against Cole's in the final round. The design challenge: "waxing and waning." Shinn produced a hanging installation constructed only out of the special ingredient: a wheelbarrow's worth of metal rings. Cole's team created a series of spheres depicting the lunar phases with a centrally located fire ball representing the sun.

Cole's team was victorious. But Shinn seemed less than impressed with the flaming sphere at the heart of her competitor's work.

"We pretty much used what was given," she said. "We're not lighting fire n' shit."

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