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Creation Story

Tom Chenoweth, Sculptor

Where he works: Chenoweth's 4,000-square-foot studio on West Main Street resembles a gritty machine shop more than an artist's studio. A three-wheeled motorcycle — built by the artist in the '70s — and a dilapidated 1957 Chevy Handyman dominate the entrance to this space filled with racks of rebar, scrap metal and heavy industrial equipment.

Why he works with metal: "That's an easy one," he says. "It is as plastic or more plastic than clay, and not as breakable. You can weld it together, cast it - there are so many different things you can do with it. The possibilities are endless."

Where he gets his materials: He buys steel from a local supplier but obtains many of his materials from three local junkyards, which he visits at least once a week. "The stuff comes in and goes right out," he says. "Those guys have no sense of aesthetics at all. They will get something great and throw it into the pile with everything else and just smash it up."

How he makes his art: Chenoweth combines an artist's aesthetic sensibility with a machinist's technical skill. After sketching a design he sets out to create it using a wide variety of tools — everything from a 50-ton press, to eight different kinds of welders, to a metal lathe, to grinding machines. "I like having the vocabulary that having a lot of tools gives you," he says.

At age 39, he started taking machinist classes at Richmond Technical Center. "I kept taking the same class over and over again to learn how to do more stuff." He even made a machine that allows him to roll metal into circles.

He has bought all of his tools and machines secondhand. "The manufacturing capabilities of this country are being sent overseas," he explains. "The vocational schools and small machine shops are shutting down. This is all surplus from America's past manufacturing capability."

Where he gets his ideas: "Nothing ever springs fully formed from your mind," Chenoweth says. "It is always a culmination of your experiences." Many of his sculptures reference insects. "I was always attracted to the shapes and forms and motions of insects. I use a lot of those things in kinetic sculptures."

Often he will be working on a sculpture and get an idea for a piece of furniture, or vice versa. Sometimes the acquisition of a new machine or tool will inspire him in a new direction. "My ideas come from an interaction with the materials," he says. "A new tool will allow me another piece of vocabulary."

What makes a successful sculpture: "You begin a piece by having certain expectations about how it is going to turn out. If it turns out better, that's fantastic. Sometimes they are complete flops. … but if it looks the way you thought it would, or better, it has that magic where you can look at it and say, 'I made that?'

"…I am getting to the point where I can make almost anything I want out of metal. It's that sense of creation that's so fulfilling. You actually have tangible proof of your efforts." — Jessica Ronky Haddad

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