With metals as a medium, an inspired couple creates beauty and function

August 18, 2012 3:35:37 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]




[email protected] 


One day we just said, 'Let's heat up some metal and have a good time with it,'" smiled Don Coulson, in the Aberdeen studio where he and his wife, Louise, spend much of their time these days. 


With a full slate of fall shows and exhibits to prepare for, the pair of metal artisans have plenty to do at the workbench. That's where the elemental magic happens. Where featureless metals are touched by imagination and craftsmanship. Where a lump of copper is coaxed to reveal its natural beauty in the form of a delicate sand dollar or nautilus shell. Where a plain sheet of bronze or aluminum could morph into an autumn leaf, rich with earthy color. 


There are hand-raised bowls, hammered boxes and organic forms to be shaped and displays to be refined. The pace can be intense, but these artistic do-it-yourselfers take most of it in stride. After all, they re-built the 50-foot boat that brought them from New England to Aberdeen, where they stopped one day in 2003 and decided to stay. Then the one-time elementary school teacher and the former civil structural engineer went about the business of building the house they live in, with their own hands. 


"We just do things," said Louise matter-of-factly, summing up an approach that has served them well in life, and in art. It shouldn't have been a big surprise then that, within about five years of transitioning from fiber art to focusing seriously on metal, their creations are in the galleries of the Craftsmen's Guild of Mississippi, and in locations including the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn., and in showrooms in New Mexico and elsewhere.  


Her strengths are artistic. His are in making things work. Together, they form the creative whole that has become Kingfisher Designs. 


"Louise has her feet firmly planted in air. Mine are more planted on earth. We complement each other," shared Don. 




From the ancients 


After originally turning their talents to jewelry, for the past several months Louise and Don have "jumped off a cliff into hollowware." Hollowware refers to vessels such as bowls, vases, cups and other items that have depth and volume. 


"We're stretching into a whole new world of raising, repoussé and fold forming," remarked Louise. "There is nothing like a new adventure to motivate a person."  


Repoussé, meaning "pushed up" in French, is a metalworking technique dating back to the third millennium BC. A malleable metal is ornamented from the reverse side, using hammer and tools -- creating an embossed design in low relief. Chasing is the process of refining the design from the front of the work, with chasing tools. Two instantly-recognizable examples of repoussé and chasing are the Mask of Tutankhamen and the Statue of Liberty. 


Louise does much of the design, repoussé and chasing. Don takes the lead when it comes to forming bowls, making footed attachments or hinges and experimenting with finishes, taking metal to its limits. 


"He makes things like that happen; his metalsmithing skills are much more advanced than mine," his wife complimented. 


Their interdependence is integral to the process. 


"I may ask her, 'Will it look better like this?' and she may ask me 'Will it work this way?' when we're in the studio," Don smiled.  




Form and function 


In their current work, the Coulsons are focused on form and function, creating beautiful things that also have purpose. 


Bowls, for example, start out as a sheet of copper, bronze or aluminum, hammered into a dished out place on a wooden base or log. 


"You start out with a regular, old, everyday guy's ballpeen hammer and just go at it," the engineer said. Painstaking skill and finesse play a big role in the shaping and planishing (smoothing the metal with tools), and in the design, repoussé and chasing that takes any piece to its finished form. 


Iridescent variations in color are achieved by flame, fluid or fumes. Don is adept at flame-painting, wielding the tip of a very small torch almost like a paintbrush.  


"Or you can close metal up in plastic with different kinds of fumes and affect the color," Louise explained. "And we mix up all kinds of things to dip it in. It can be as simple as dipping it in salsa. You can get color a lot of ways -- it's very experimental." 


All of it can be a meticulous and wondrous process, and there are no guarantees 


"We have buckets and buckets of things that didn't work, but we're in good with the scrap metal people," Don laughed.  






For Don and Louise, working with metal is an exercise in evolution. The more they ask of it, the more it seems to respond with a fluidity that is not apparent at the outset. Some pieces spring spontaneously from the hammer or torch, while others are revealed through modeling, sketching or experimentation. While each piece is rooted in time-honored methods, the natural beauty of the materials and elements is an expression of the excitement of a new idea, design or technique. 


Their vision is never stagnant; a new quest is always on the horizon. One upcoming project is a one-of-a-kind copper sink for a design house near Jackson. Louise is creating a fish pond motif she will apply with repoussé and chasing techniques. 


The couple's contemporary work is, they say, a tribute to the early artisans who crafted with the same materials and with very similar tools. 


The Coulsons continue to meld their strengths and talents in the studio every day, inspired by the challenge of folding, stretching, pushing and pressing metals to see where they will go, and preparing for fine arts shows such as Prairie Arts in West Point Sept. 1 and the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum's "Art Fair ExtraOHRdinaire" on the Gulf Coast Sept. 15-16. 


"A lot of people, especially young people, don't really understand that you can make a living with your hands," Louise said. "For us, each piece is a journey, and every trip into the studio is an adventure!"

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.