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Green to exhibit kinetic metal work at Main St. Gallery
Metal sculpture artist Rhonda Green uses a plasma cutter to cut a pattern from a sheet of steel on Wednesday at her workshop in the North Point Higgins area.Green holds a pattern that she cut using a plasma cutter. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan artist Rhonda Green is bringing her kinetic metal work to life at the Main Street Gallery during the month of April in her exhibition “My Secret Synergy Garden.”

“There’ll be stuff hanging, there’ll be stuff on the ground — big sculptures,” Green said. “Most of it just spins.”

In her workshop Wednesday afternoon, Green displayed some of the pieces that will be featured in the show.  

A metal tree with layers of lobed branches stood to one side, waiting for  its pieces to be slid onto its trunk. A school of salmon cut into a large piece of steel came alive when the small pipe chimes hanging in their bellies was stroked.

A humpback whale lying on the floor of the shop was fitted with shiny metal disks that gave the impression of sinuous movement when the piece was moved.

A plethora of scrap metal pieces — potential art — leaned, teetered and sprawled across the garage shop and spilled out to the yard into the sunshine.

A workbench was piled with chisels, hammers, permanent markers, chalk, clamps and two welding helmets.

A huge round steel buoy lay cut in half, a lumpy glob of expanding foam bulging out of one half. Those would become fire pits, Green said.

One finished fire pit sat just outside the stacks of scrap materials, its sides swimming with cutouts of rockfish, crabs and salmon. Green said she most frequently creates those from salvaged propane tanks, and has donated countless fire pits to charitable fundraisers.

Rows of brake rotors lay near the nearby house’s deck, and Green said she uses those as stands for art pieces. A large circular-saw blade, a metal tractor seat, seemingly endless stacks of steel sheets, a huge U-shaped piece of steel and even an old metal-strap trash can sat waiting to be transformed into art pieces.

“I try to get as much metal as I can to recycle from the garbage dump,” she said. It has gotten more difficult in the past year, however, as she said the metal pieces are getting pushed over the edge with the other trash, making it very difficult and hazardous to pull out what she needs.

She does get donated scrap metal, she said.

“I have people who call me all the time and they’ll drop stuff off for me,” she said.

She was very clear that she cannot use metal that has oil or fuel residue, however.

Green’s house’s deck railings are fitted with her metal art panels, which feature sea life, including humpback whales, salmon and a sprawling octopus.

On Wednesday, Green was cutting small disks, patterned to look like jellyfish, out of a steel plate to be utilized as the top pieces in wind chimes. She used her plasma cutter to deftly slice the pieces out of the plate, then to pierce designs into the center.

Earlier in the week, Green met at a local restaurant to talk about her work and her history as an artist.

A bit more than 10 years ago, Green met Anne Fitzgerald when their sons had become friends. Green was immediately fascinated with Fitzgerald’s work as a welder. They began to collaborate on art projects, with Green mostly as the designer and plasma cutter specialist and Fitzgerald plying her welding skills. They also had their specialties in a more broad sense.

“She was more social and liked to go to those things and talk to people about the art and I was more in the background,” Green said.

Not long after, they started their business, “Salvage Divas,” which Green still runs.

They began to sell trivets at Soho Coho, and sales of a variety of their metal art began to bloom with family and friends.

“We just started getting more creative,” she said, and they applied for a Main Street Gallery show.

They also applied for commissions, and installed art pieces at Community Connections and the Ketchikan Public Library.

When Fitzgerald had to leave town, Green had to step up and gain some new skills, so she worked through two semesters of welding classes with Ken Horne, who also is a metal artist.

“I started out from not knowing anything,” she said.

As she struck out on her own, Green said another skill she’s had to work on is the promotion of the business, which had been Fitzgerald’s specialty.

“It’s been hard for me, having to step forward,” she said.

But Green’s artistic experience is extensive. From the time she was a child, she learned skills from her mother, Sydney Burton, who taught Green to sew and do macrame, gardening and painting.

As an adult, she’s taken many classes at the Totem Heritage Center, including carving, silver engraving, basket weaving and formline design.

She is a member of the Cape Fox Corp., as her father was Tlingit. She recently has been working on incorporating Tlingit designs into her work.

Green also has been a Wearable Arts Show artist for more than 15 years, creating stunning pieces.

“I put all my kids through Wearable Arts, and their friends,” she said, laughing. She added that she probably has involved up to 50 kids in modeling her costumes over the years. She said that two of her pieces were featured in an Alaska Air magazine recently.

She applied her metalworking skills to her Wearable Arts costume this year.

“It weighed probably about 50 pounds total,” she said, chuckling.

Green said she also always had a love of working outside with her hands from a young age.

Creating metal sculpture brought all of her interests together.

“I like it because it’s hands-on, and it takes a little bit of strength to do, so it pushes me to stay in some type of shape,” she said.

The most challenging aspect of creating metal art, she said, is that once a cut is made, there’s no going back.

“I’ve tried watercolor painting, and there’s no going back on that — but it can be the same way with metal work,” she said. Mistakes either have to be accepted as they are, or transformed into an altered design.

She has to envision the design with a clear idea of where the negative, cut-out spaces will be. One deck panel in a photo on her Salvage Diva’s Facebook page illustrates this skill clearly, with an orca created by leaving the black metal where the animal is colored black, and empty space where it is colored white.

Her pieces are strongly evocative of Southeast Alaska.

“I kind of like to stick with the Alaska theme,” she said, adding “I love the ocean life.”

Green’s artwork also can be seen at the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, in the Ken C. Eichner Healing garden. In a panel she installed there, a Temsco helicopter trails an American flag — a tradition that the local aviation pioneer began as a kickoff to Fourth of July parade in Ketchikan.

Below the helicopter, is a bald eagle fishing for salmon and a seine boat. Swimming below all is a humpback whale.

She also has work installed at schools in Fairbanks.

Green said that her biggest challenge of preparing for her April gallery show has been one of quantity.

“Just trying to make sure that I have enough stuff to fill it up,” she said, describing her thoughts as the show opening nears. “I panic — ‘Oh my gosh, do I have enough? Do I need more?’”

She said she’s had “a lot of sleepless nights.”

Her advice for artists hoping to create their own gallery show was to reach out for support.

“I would talk to the arts council,” she said. “They’re really good at helping you.”

Her exhibition will be a unique one for visitors.

“I’m going to make it so it’s interactive, so they can actually — if they want to spin it, they can spin it,” she said.

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to stroke the spinning discs on the humpback whale, spin a tall spiraling sculpture and salmon topping other pieces. Wind chimes will be waiting for the strokes of fingers and fish, for the nudge of a hand.

Green said she did quite a bit of research to understand how to design a kinetic sculpture so that it could gracefully move.

“There’s really a lot to it,” she said.

Most of her pieces receive black powder coating from Alaska Coatings in Ward Cove. Some of them feature a subtle rainbow hue from heat application and some are more natural, with a clear-coated rust patina.

An interesting fact about many of Green’s pieces, is that many of them feature “secret things” tucked somewhere into the design. Often, she said, it is a family member’s face, or a memory of a loved one.

Green will teach a class from noon to 2 p.m on April 6 at the gallery. She plans to lead students through the finishing and assembly of the jellyfish wind chimes she was preparing in her shop Wednesday.

One thing she’d like class attendees to learn is the work to chisel, grind and sand the freshly cut metal pieces, which she said is a big part of creating metal sculptures.

“The finishing processes are the most tedious,” she said, but added, “I find that repetitive stuff like that is kind of relaxing.”

Green’s “My Secret Synergy Garden” exhibit will open at the Main Street Gallery between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., April 5, at 330 Main Street. The show will run through April 26.

Green has a simple hope for her exhibit’s visitors.

“I just want them to have fun,” she said.