Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Creation Story: Tom McCormack

Mixed-media artist

How he thought to use steel and acid: McCormack and his brother moved to a warehouse in Petersburg full of old junk. All of his art is made from materials found in that and other warehouses. "When it gets cold here in the winter, there's not a whole lot to do but move things around and mess with stuff," he says. McCormack discovered a bunch of 200-pound 6-foot-by-5-foot sheets of steel that had been rusted because of years of leaks and dampness. He liked their patina and started experimenting with them. He uses muriatic acid to refinish old porcelain tubs in renovation projects and discovered he could draw on the steel with the chemical. Then he came across some hydrochloric acid in another warehouse and began using that too. Through research he discovered that phosphoric acid keeps metal bright and inhibits re-rusting and added that to the process.

How he makes his art: McCormack first uses a plasma cutter to cut the steel sheets in halves or fourths. He works from a photo of an industrial site — like a shipyard in Norfolk, the West Point paper plant, or Walter's Feed & Seed in Windsor — then brushes off the rust with the acid and is left with the image. "It makes sense to me," he says of using the materials to depict industrial scenes. Afterward, he grinds the edges of the sheets and puts a seal on top so they won't rust any further.

Why he's drawn to industrial sites: Growing up outside of New York City, McCormack says he'd catch fleeting glimpses of industrial plants in the distance. He also lived part of his life around a lot of steel plants in Bethlehem, Pa. More recently, McCormack was working on a documentary about the health of the Appomattox River and found himself around them once again. "It's just amazing when you come across them — I could look at them all day."

How the FBI influenced his art: One day he was taking pictures of a chemical plant in Hopewell for the documentary, and the FBI ended up tracking him down and questioning him. "I started to realize that there was something dangerous about these places," he says. "It just became really exciting for me." Since then, McCormack says he's been stopped a number of times, and that adds to the allure for him.

What he gets out of restoration work: "It's nice to take something that's completely run-down and bring it back," he says of the steel, "and that's the idea of what we do on the houses here in Petersburg too. There's a lot of art that's involved with that kind of stuff, too; there's a lot of creativity." — Carrie Nieman

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment