Man of steel

On the banks of the Duwamish, blacksmith Bill Cooper lifts his beams to the sky.

WHEN SEATTLE Art Museum officials completed plans for a new outdoor sculpture park (scheduled to open in 2004 if funding allows), they settled on a site beside Elliott Bay with those treasured postcard views. You can make a pretty good bet they never considered a strip of land next to a trucking lot along the gritty banks of the Duwamish Waterway, where concrete pillars rise to support the West Seattle Bridge that arcs above. The vista here, decidedly not for tourists, sweeps across heavy industry and the backsides of byways. But if you happen to travel on one of the tugs that haul the gravel barges through this channel, you might notice something odd rising treelike from the western bank: a 17-foot structural steel beam forged into art by a metalworker named Bill Cooper, the beginning, it turns out, of a sculpture park he plans to build himself.

"It's a good place to show art because of the industrial connection," says Cooper, 57, a tall man with broad features and large hands blackened by scorched steel. Standing next to the curves and ridges of his beam, titled Structural Adjustment, Cooper points out the sights beyond it, drawn together into a kind of sculptural tableau. There's a cement factory, a 1911 railroad bridge tilted back on its counterweight, the trussed necks of freight derricks, a grain elevator. Taking them in, you begin to realize that Cooper, often wry, isn't joking—placing sculpture here makes perfect sense.

"We come to look at our materials as permanent," he explains, "something we can't change. But sculpture expresses the possibility in these materials for a more humanistic and naturalistic state. It's a mediation between the natural world and the made one."

Cooper engages in a similar mediation himself, between artisan and artist. His large sculptures, rugged sentinel-like columns, have been shown at Chicago's prestigious Pier Walk exhibit, and they appear in various locations around the country, including Urban Garden Habitat, an outdoor gallery in Fall City that opens for the season on April 4.

But art that weighs several tons does not easily sell, especially in a region where glass is king. So Cooper earns a living as a modern blacksmith, forging equipment for Seattle's fishermen, a business he runs with his wife, Lee. In a corrugated shed only shouting distance from his planned park, Cooper hammers out dozens of gaff hooks, grapple hooks, net rings, and fluked anchors ("the Popeye type," as Cooper calls them). They sit in racks next to his sculptures—everything made possible by the single oven-sized forge that glows orange in the center of the shop.

You cannot help but be drawn to that glow and to the machines around it that cut and mash steel. An ancient art, forging appeals to atavistic fascinations with fire and force, feelings that Cooper readily embraces. "There's something compelling about red-hot stuff," he chuckles, then turns more serious. "A block of steel has a lot of magnetic force. We have magnetic receptors in our bodies. So I think there's a presence there that we have some relationship to." But for Cooper, the real beauty of forging is in its expression of the physical. "I see it as captured energy," he says. "[The sculpture] carries that evidence: first of being in the fire, then of having been distressed."

To demonstrate such energy, Cooper dips steel roundbar through a small gap between the forge's bricks into heat of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After a moment, he pulls the piece out, now the color of lava and as malleable as clay, and places it under the head of a pneumatic hammer. Several blows later, Cooper has rendered it into the shape of taffy on a stick and marked its length with impressions of rods and wire he's placed under the hammer. Cooled, the steel becomes a "garden spirit," a small yard sculpture he's started selling as orders slow from the declining fishing industry.

You sense in Cooper's work a resolute joy—fueled, perhaps, by late-blooming passion. The first college grad in a family that worked in Michigan's cereal factories, Cooper had originally planned on a career in academia. But at age 30, frustrated by a doctoral dissertation on Thorstein Veblen's dense social theories, he fled with his wife to Montana for a breather. There, needing a trade, he entered a farrier school on little more than a whim. "The romance of the West had me," says Cooper, who finally abandoned the dissertation. "I'd never even touched a horse, but I was going to become a horseshoer."

It was as a farrier that Cooper first worked with hot steel, fitting shoes to hooves. And in the trade's tradition of making trinkets from worn-out tools, Cooper forged a few small dancing figures as a gift for Lee, who happened to love the performances of Martha Graham. Dance led to more glimpses of sculpture: Isamu Noguchi's collaboration with Graham on set design, Degas' bronze ballerinas.

Then Cooper attended a blacksmith's conference in 1980. "All this mass moving around," Cooper recalls of seeing power hammers for the first time. "I was just flabbergasted." But not until several years later, after he'd quit horseshoeing to join a more profitable marine-equipment forge in Seattle, did Cooper really begin to imagine himself as a sculptor. Books lying around the office introduced him to major artists working with metal. "Then one day," Cooper says, "I happened to catch on public television a program about [Eduardo] Chillida [the renowned Basque sculptor] . . . and that's when I said, I've got to do that."

And he did. In fact, Cooper created a series of sculptures, the first named Implacable Witness after a statement Chillida made about art, which, he said, stands between the artist "and an implacable witness—the work." But Cooper clearly enjoys more engaging witnesses, too. "This is one of the prizes from my show in Chicago," he says, then gleefully displays snapshots of family, friends, and tourists cavorting around the steel column.

Like SAM, Cooper hopes to complete his sculpture park by 2004, when the International Sculpture Conference comes to Seattle. He expects only invitees will show up, but one never knows. "Sculptures are ritualistic," he says. "For whatever reason, they become gathering places."

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