Rust never sleeps: Oxidation in art

by Erik Beerbower

I know now what Neil Young meant when he said rust never sleeps. About three months ago I placed a large sculpture in my backyard next to my apple tree, partly because I have too many sculptures in my front yard, but mostly because at times my yard can get a little wild. I want my friends to think wow that’s a cool sculpture rather than man he must not know what a lawnmower is.

Every day I look out of my kitchen window to take stock of the rust that is forming on my piece. There is something beautiful about rusty art – whether it is the warm earth tones that complement my crab grass or the natural process of steel breaking down and settling into its surroundings, I find myself being drawn into the process. It is fascinating to watch an object that was once bright and shiny now dulling, aging and maturing.

Perhaps it is because I see myself in that rust.

Oxidation is the scientific term for rust; it occurs when oxygen comes in contact with certain metals and over time the metal begins to break down and weaken at an atomic level. Three things are required to make rust: metal, water and oxygen. When water comes into contact with the iron in the metal it combines with the carbon dioxide in the air to form an acid, and the acid begins to corrode the metal and rust develops. It is amazing to me that the very two things that help sustain life, water and air, are the two things that break down and corrode metal. When you combine life and time we too start to break down and weaken on a physical level and aging develops. We have a lot more in common with rust than I would have imagined.

As an artist that works a lot in metal, I have learned that rust can be either your friend or your foe. If you choose to ignore it you may be left with more scrap than art. But if you choose to incorporate it successfully you can create a stunning work that possesses both character and charm. As a sales tool I have learned to refer to rust as a patina because it is a hard sell when you refer to your sculpture as “rusting” rather than “developing a rich patina” which sounds so much more sophisticated. I thought that it would be interesting to get other artists opinions and thoughts about using rust.

“Rust is in,” proclaims Carolyn Owen, a deep-rooted fixture in Greensboro’s sculptural community. Carolyn told me that she has made a pact with God never to paint another sculpture. She believes that rust is natural and not manufactured, and when you paint sculpture you “miss the art.” Painting is another step in her work, one that can take just as long as creating the work itself. She feels that colors are subjective and change with the fads.

“Rust is the evidence of the living quality of the material,” says Frank Russell, the fresh art fish man of Art Mongerz. Speaking as a sculptor and painter, Frank says he loves the color range you get from rust; from orange to burgundy to brown the colors are natural and always changing. Frank told me that he has had one of Carolyn’s sculptures on his back deck for the past 10 years and is amazed at how much it has changed. In addition to Carolyn’s art he sports one of my pieces at his house and says it is “patina-ing nicely.”

The godfather of public art in Greensboro, Jim Gallucci, believes that “rust looks great in gardens.” Gallucci spoke to me by phone on the way to Fayetteville to finish installation on his 9-11 sculpture where it will be on permanent display. He says rust in sculpture is more prevalent in the North than the South because the South’s red clay does not provide a good contrast to accentuate the sculpture. If used thoughtfully, Gallucci sees rust as a great accent color but not good for the mechanics of the sculpture. I was interested in Jim’s perspective because his work tends to be powder coated, galvanized, stainless or bronze to minimize or eliminate the presence of rust.

Lately I have found myself painting my work with fluorescent paints and suppressing my urge to let it rust. I suppose it is because I work with loose lines without a lot of surface area and if I went with rust it might get lost.

Right now fluorescent green is my color of choice and I can confidently tell whoever is interested in my work that you can’t miss it. Subconsciously, it may be a defense mechanism to my inevitable aging, and instead of polishing my dullness I choose to surface treat it with bright colors and go with the quick fix. If a little rust starts appearing on my bright paint job, I will just tell everyone that I am “developing a rich patina.”

As for Neil Young, it may be better to paint than burn out, ’cause rust never sleeps.