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Artist behind Calle sculpture keeps community in mind

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.”

— Kevin Christman

Looking at the large river rocks in the Ashland public art sculpture by Kevin Christman called “Inorganic Compound,” it looks like the steel grew around — or perhaps melted around — the rocks. How is that possible?

Christman’s artistic journey began at a young age.

“When I was 8, my father signed himself and me up to take the art class with the parish priest. That was my first formal training.” In high school, Christman created in the art room every day after school while his classmates played sports.

In 1988, he had a crazy idea to travel the United States and paint landscapes in every one of the lower 48 states — and he did it. That’s when he thought, ‘This is the beginning of an art career this is where it starts.’”

Following that trip, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he became passionate about sculpture. Ten years later, Christman moved to Ashland.

“Inorganic Compound” is one of three public artworks on the Calle Guanajuato stairway that connects Granite Street (at its intersection with High Street) with Ashland Creek next to Calle Guanajuato. I encourage you to explore all three.

Christman said he likes public art that relates to its environment. He gave two ways that he sees the sculpture. One is that it looks like a molecular compound, the living microscopic world blown up using rock and stone for us to see in the macro world.

He was also influenced by “Inorganic Compound’s” natural setting along Ashland Creek. “With this piece in particular, it’s the feeling of the river flowing by,” he says. “So the stones sort of represent the rocks that are sitting in the river, and the metal encasing them is like the water flowing over them.”

The rocks in the sculpture are river rocks that Christman found on a friend’s property along Carberry Creek in the Applegate Valley. The metal is mild steel that was forged around the stone.

To get the steel and rock to flow together so tightly, he took the steel and “bezeled it onto the stone.” When I looked up the word “bezel,” the descriptions I saw referred to setting a gem or design in fine jewelry. Ten-pound stones are a little bigger than fine jewelry.

The mild steel was weld-forged onto the stone. “I started off with a two-inch-wide strap of metal and clamped it to the stone,” Christman explains. “Then I heated it with a torch until it turned red and pounded it to the contour of the stone until I came all the way around. After I formed it and welded it, I had a narrow bezel.”

“Then I would add another band on the side of that. I’d weld as I’d go. There are three or four strips of metal, all welded together.”

The weld marks are not obvious to a viewer. “That’s good,” Christman says. “It’s sort of a mystery. I wanted it to feel like jewelry as well, with the bezel. But how do you wrap quarter-inch-thick steel around a stone? I wanted it to be from a technical standpoint somebody would look at it and think, ‘How did they do that?’”

“Inorganic Compound” was installed in 2009. To Libby Edson, who was on the city Public Arts Commission at that time, Christman’s sculpture fits perfectly into the space along Ashland Creek. The sculpture expresses the connection with nature through river rocks, but the way they are stacked and wrapped in metal expresses the intersection of humans and nature. She sees “Inorganic Compound” as representing “people living in harmony with nature, with a strong bond to protect nature.”

In our discussion, Edson kept coming back to the importance of community. It takes community to realize the value of public art and to preserve it through the decades and centuries. It takes community to realize the value of the natural world that surrounds us and to preserve our environment. Art reminds us of these values.

I told Edson that’s why I am writing this series of articles about every public artwork in Ashland.

During the Almeda fire, Christman had been in the process of moving from one art studio to another. He had packed almost everything from his studio into a large, seemingly safe storage container. The fire destroyed everything he had stored there. Some things, like his tools, can be replaced. Others, like a lifetime of drawings and sketches organized in file cabinets, are irreplaceable. The hardest blow was the loss of all his sculpture molds, which allowed him to make and sell copies of his most popular sculptures.

The massive community loss, combined with his personal loss, stimulated Christman to create a public artwork for the Talent/Phoenix area to be made using scrap metal left from homes and businesses destroyed by the fire. He sees this as a way to both remember the devastation and also to provide hope for rebuilding, renewal and new life.

“Everything Kevin has done, he has done with a community mindset,” Edson said as I marveled at Christman’s response to the tragedy.

Read Peter Finkle’s other articles about Ashland public art, history, neighborhoods and more at WalkAshland.com.

Artist Kevin Christman with his sculpture “Inorganic Compound.” Photo by Peter Finkle