The Metallurgic Alchemy & ‘Heavy Metal’ Artistry of STEVE HUBBARD

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 716   By: Robert E Martin

09th December, 2010     0

When Steve Hubbard of the Saginaw-based automotive body shop Westside Collision first started experimenting 18-years ago with taking heavy sheet metal and turning it into a canvas for artistic expression, little did he realize that his creations would be entered into Grand Rapids annual ArtPrize contest, let alone have his work displayed in museums and sought by modern art collectors; but such is the stuff that ‘heavy metal’ dreams are made of.

Through developing, honing, and polishing a technique known as ‘smoking’, Hubbard to date has created 20 original pieces of automotive-oriented artwork that transcends into realms of impressionistic visual expression, which much like a Rorschach inkblot, are open to multi-faceted interpretation by the observer.

Hubbard came upon this talent of ‘smoking’ when his brother Fred developed this technique back in the 1950s on a metal dashboard. “Basically, it involves taking an acetylene torch to lay smoke patterns into freshly painted metal,” explains Steve. “This is called ‘smoking a dash’ and I’d never seen it done before; but once I did I fell in love with it and started messing around.”

“All my stuff looked terrible, because I didn’t have the technique down, so I stopped for awhile, until I started working on this house built in the late 1800s that I owned,” continues Steve. “I stripped all the woodwork and all the hardware looked terrible, so I took all the registers that were burnt copper and sandblasted them, along with the doorknobs, hinges, even the little washers and screws, and smoked all of it.  My wife and I could not believe how great it turned out. It looked so amazing and natural. We lived in that house for 15-years and the first day we decided to sell the home, three people started bidding because they were so impressed, and it never even went on the market, plus we got well over the asking price,” smiles Steve.

Hubbard started experimenting with different visual patterns to incorporate into his technique and the first piece that he sold actually came out of a test panel from a banged up piece of sheet metal. “It was actually for a snow machine and was hanging on the wall and this customer wanted to purchase it,” he explains.

Hubbard’s artistic journey started to fuel itself for launch one day when an Indian architect named Rasheed Mohsini stepped into Westside Collision one day and asked it Hubbard would consider selling one of his ‘canvases’. “I had heard a lot of people talk, but he seriously wanted to know what I wanted for this piece of dented sheet metal,” relates Hubbard. “30 minutes later he came in with his wife and daughter and they asked me to design some pieces for their home, which had tall 20 foot ceilings, and was filled with art from around the world.”

“When I visited their house, I brought another panel that I created that was fresh, and his Wife asked how many of them I had. I told her two and she asked if I would get another eight or 10 together, because she would like to put a show together in her home of my work.”

With 20 compositions created to date, the average size of Hubbard’s panels are 30x36, or 18x36 inches tall, which he then arranges together about an inch apart. “It’s called a triptych,” explains Hubbard, “and the piece I placed in the ArtPrize contest was a nine-panel work.”

Because Steve was somewhat of a novice at visualizing his creations in terms of artistic rendering, he went to Rasheed for advice, insofar as he had never done a painting upon canvas, nor thought of his work in that manner.

“He didn’t want to put his interpretations or influence upon me,” explains Steve, “but did note how many artists are known by their use and understanding of proportion. Everything was about proportion and he e-mailed me 30 pages on the topic. Consequently, an 18x15 dimension is proportional to 30x36, so the nine-piece of 15x18 panels, when all put together, comes out to 48x54, which is quite large.”

When asked how he views his work as evolving, Steve says that his primary goal is to keep it fresh. “When my mind goes dead then I’ll start repeating myself,” he states. “But I want to continually do newer and newer things. Basically, I have two styles – one is freehand, the other involves masking four different layers of graphics to create depth to the work.”

Once he has sheets of 18 gauge galvanized metal cut, Steve will then cut the wood and glue the frames, which is essentially his ‘canvas’. “I’ll glue the metal to the frames and finish off the edges, prime the metal, and then be ready for painting,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll put 4 or 5 canvases together to experiment. When its time to paint I add my color and mask the graphics. Silver is a good base for any color, so I will smoke that, add clearcoat for protection, add the color, smoke and protect that, and then move to the next color. Usually it takes anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per piece that I create.”

“I try to create more depth with each that I do,” continues Steve, “so when I’m home not doing anything I will sketch out new ideas. I have a stack of sketches that I go through when starting a new work. Many times it doesn’t turn out like the sketch I’m working from, but that’s all part of discovery and keeping it fresh.”

“This is like a dream come true for me,” concludes Hubbard. “When I was a little kid I always loved doing art, but who would think I could do something like this and get paid for it?

Some older guys that I’ve spoken with have seen some of the smoked dash work from the 1950s, but nobody really does it anymore. I’ve had people claim they can do it, so I always ask them how they work. They start talking about using a propane torch and I know they are lying, because propane burns too clean.”

“There is nothing more unique than seeing a smoked bolt laid upon chrome – the iridescence of the light shining through.”

“But what I really love about it all is the fact that the madness is in the detail.”


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