“Inorganic Compound” – Art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway

Kevin Christman

Learn how it was made, step by step.
Rock + Steel = River?
Bonus: Stained glass masterpieces.
Artist: Kevin Christman.
Ashland Public Art Series.

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Kevin Christman

How were the rocks wrapped in metal?

Inorganic Compound sculpture
Close-up of Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Look at those large river rocks. Do you wonder how they were wrapped in steel as you look at the sculpture? I sure do. The sculptor would say, I want you to wonder about that. 

The steel looks like it grew around the large rocks, or perhaps melted around the rocks. It is all so seamless, so organic looking for a sculpture called “Inorganic Compound.”

If you keep reading, I will tell you what I learned from Kevin Christman.

Impact of the Almeda fire: “It’s as if I’m starting over with my sculpture.”

Kevin told me he wants to create more “public works of art that inspire people, and hopefully you walk away feeling better after you experience it than when you came to it. Part of the impetus of doing a sculpture out of the ashes of this fire is to affect people and have them resonate with it and feel hopeful; you have obstacles in your life, you overcome them, and you’re better because of it.” 

Kevin was in the process of moving from one art and sculpture studio to another. In the meantime, he had packed almost everything from his studio in a large, seemingly safe storage container. Sadly, the Almeda fire destroyed everything he had stored there. Some things, like his tools, can be replaced. Others, like a lifetime of drawings and sketches organized in file cabinets, are irreplaceable. The hardest blow of all is the loss of all his sculpture molds, which allowed him to make and sell additional copies of his most popular sculptures. All are gone.

The massive community loss, combined with his personal loss, stimulated Kevin’s idea to create a public artwork for the Talent/Phoenix area to be made using scrap metals left from homes and businesses destroyed by the devastating Almeda fire. He sees this as a way to both remember the devastation and also to provide hope for rebuilding, renewal and new life.

“Everything Kevin has done, he has done with a community mindset.” I think of these words Libby Edson told me as I marvel at Kevin’s response to this tragedy. 

Kevin’s artistic journey 

“When I was eight, my father signed himself and me up to take the art class with the parish priest. That was my first formal training.” 

Kevin Christman

Kevin loved art from age six. “Everyone in my family knew that I could draw and would give me charcoal and art books for every birthday and holiday gift.”

He continued, “When I was eight years old, I was an altar boy at the Catholic Church in St. Martin, Minnesota, where I grew up. The parish priest there was really good at painting oil paintings of chapels and churches. He had large paintings in his house and he was going to be teaching an art class on how to paint.”

After Kevin took the priest’s art class, all he wanted to do was paint. In high school, he had the keys to the art room. After school, other kids would play sports and then take the athletic bus home after practice ended. Kevin went to the art room every day after school to paint and draw, and then joined the other kids on the athletic bus to go home. 

Kevin’s detour from art

Surprisingly, he took a detour from art. After an engineering degree, he worked in the aerospace industry for a few years. It was exciting to work in the Research & Development Department on the B-2 Stealth bomber at Northrop Corporation. But he wasn’t painting, so there was a huge hole in his life.

B-2 “Stealth” bomber in 2006. (photo from U.S. Air Force, on Wikimedia Commons)

Painting landscapes in every state!

Kevin returned to painting in 1988 through classes at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. When he realized his painting style was not a good fit for the college, he had a crazy idea to travel the United States and paint landscapes in every one of the “lower 48” states – and he did! He and his first wife lived out of a Jeep for a year as he made this crazy idea a reality. Kevin described it as “a real eye-opening year. That’s when I thought, ‘this is the beginning of an art career…this is where it starts.’”

Kevin Christman painting
This photo shows Kevin Christman painting on location in France. He has also painted on location in Italy, Germany and the Caribbean, preselling his paintings to collectors.

Following that cross-country trip, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1990 to work in a foundry. He became passionate about sculpture there and eventually apprenticed with many of the finest sculptors in the Santa Fe area. He assisted them in making molds and sculptures, while beginning his own sculpture career.

“Why did you move to the Ashland area?”

In response to my question, Kevin began: “My fiancee’s cousin was involved in the Ashland Elks Lodge. He had settled here and kept saying, ‘You have to come to Ashland. You have to check it out. It’s really a beautiful place.’”

Kevin married in 1997 and the newlyweds visited the Oregon coast for their honeymoon. Afterward they stopped in Ashland for a few days and were struck by the sense of safety in town, which was very different from their experience of living in Santa Fe.

They moved to Ashland the following year. In the years since then, Kevin has lived both in Ashland and Talent. He currently resides in rural Talent and loves the community. To him, “It feels like home.” 

Kevin laughed as he told me, “I was sort of reluctant to move to Talent, only because when you are corresponding with artists outside the area, or in New York, for an artist to live in a town named ‘Talent’ is just a little too cliché.” But he has made his peace with that “problem.”

I will tell Kevin’s complete story of the “why” behind his move to Ashland in another article. 

Public art along this stairway

I previously wrote three articles about three Ashland public artworks located along the “Bandersnatch Trail art walk.” I discovered another three-piece public art walk in Ashland, on the Calle Guanajuato stairway between Ashland Creek and Granite Street. 

(#1) Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman is located along the stairway, towards the bottom. (#2) Fall Splendor by Annette Julien is located along the stairway, towards the top.  (#3) Rio Amistad by Sue Springer and Karen Rycheck is at the top of the stairway, next to Granite Street.

Inorganic Compound sculpture
This is Inorganic Compound. Further up the Calle Guanajuato stairway, you will find two other Ashland public artworks. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“What does the sculpture mean to you?”

Kevin replied that he likes public art that relates to its environment. He doesn’t like artists who tell viewers what they “should” see in the artwork. However, he thinks it can provide a richer experience for the viewer to know how the artist sees the artwork. As Kevin said, in addition to the natural setting, “I am part of the context of the piece.” 

Kevin gave me two ways that he sees the sculpture. One is that is looks like a molecular compound, the living microscopic world blown up using rock and stone for us to see in the macro world. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
The Inorganic Compound sculpture in process, in the studio. (photo by Kevin Christman)

He was also influenced by the natural setting along Ashland Creek. He told me, “With this piece in particular, it’s the feeling of the river flowing by. So the stones sort of represent the rocks that are sitting in the river and the metal encasing them is like the water flowing over them.” 

How the Inorganic Compound sculpture was made

Drawing on that inspiration, the rocks in this sculpture are actual river rocks. Kevin found them on a friend’s property along Carberry Creek in the Applegate valley. The metal is mild steel that was forged around the stone. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
River rocks were collected for Inorganic Compound, then wrapped in steel. (photo by Kevin Christman)

If you are like me, you might be wondering right now how Kevin got steel and rock to flow together so tightly.

Kevin said he took the steel and “bezeled it on to the stone.” When I looked up the word “bezel,” the descriptions I saw referred to setting a gem or design in fine jewelry. Ten pound stones are a little bigger than fine jewelry!

The mild steel was weld-forged onto the stone. This is how Kevin described the process. “I started off with a 2” wide strap of metal and clamped it to the stone. Then I heated it with a torch until it turned red and pounded it to the contour of the stone until I came all the way around. After I formed it and welded it, I had a narrow bezel.”

“Then I would add another band on the side of that. I’d weld as I’d go. There are three or four strips of metal, all welded together.” I interrupted Kevin at this point, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of welding. I can’t even see any of the weld marks.” He replied, “That’s good. It’s sort of a mystery. I wanted it to feel like jewelry as well, with the bezel. But how do you wrap 1/4” thick steel around a stone? I wanted it to be from a technical standpoint somebody would look at it and think, ‘How did they do that?’”

Dedication, public art and community

Inorganic Compound was installed and dedicated in 2009. Kevin’s sculpture was first considered as part of a rotating art plan for the Calle Guanajuato stairway. The idea was to have artwork on loan from artists for a year or two along the stairway. Though a good idea, it was too complicated to make it work in practice. I spoke with Libby Edson, who was on the Public Arts Commission at that time. She told me she suggested that the city buy Inorganic Compound because of the quality of the sculpture, which was done.

Libby added to my understanding of public art as we talked. We discussed the impact of where public art is placed, as well as the impact of public art on community. For Libby, both of these elements are crucial for a deep understanding of Inorganic Compound. 

She sees the sculpture’s placement along Ashland Creek as a perfect fit. The sculpture expresses the connection with nature through river rocks, but the way they are stacked and wrapped in metal expresses the intersection of humans and nature. She sees Inorganic Compound as representing “people living in harmony with nature, with a strong bond to protect nature.”  

In our discussion, Libby kept coming back to the importance of community. It takes community to realize the value of public art and to preserve it through the decades and centuries. It takes community to realize the value of the natural world that surrounds us and to preserve our environment. Art reminds us of these values.

The concept of community also ties in with the placement of this piece, per Libby. “It is on the Calle Guanajuato, which represents our relationship with our sister city in Mexico. It represents those community bonds as well.”

How to find the sculpture 

map
Arrow shows the location of Inorganic Compound along the Calle Guanajuato stairway, between Calle Guanajuato and Granite Street. (map from google maps)

You can reach the Inorganic Compound sculpture from Granite Street or Calle Guanajuato. 

The top of the stairway is on Granite Street, near the intersection with High Street. At the top of the stairway you will find a bench and a mosaic artwork, another piece in the Ashland public art collection. Near the bottom of the stairway, you will find Inorganic Compound.

From Calle Guanajuato, cross Ashland Creek to the path on the west side of the creek. You will see Inorganic Compound from the path, situated near the bottom of the stairway.

Other art by Kevin Christman

St. Mary’s School Chapel

St. Mary's School Chapel
St. Mary’s School Chapel exterior. (photo by Ezra Marcos)

The new chapel at St. Mary’s School in Medford is the most meaningful artwork of Kevin’s long artistic career. He told me it took “five years of work all in one building.” For this huge project, he created 32 stained glass windows and 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures! Here is a taste of the beauty there. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

My wife and I had an opportunity to visit the chapel in person on a sunny day. The sun’s rays lit up Kevin’s brilliant colors of stained glass on three sides of the intimate building. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Resurrection”. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures are not as bright as stained glass windows, but like the windows they invite extended viewing to look for meaningful details. 

Kevin Christman sculpture
St Mary’s School Chapel bronze bas-relief by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “St. Damien of Moloka’i.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

A beautiful book has photos of the stained glass windows and bronze bas-relief sculptures, plus a description of each one and an “artist’s statement” about each one. It is available for $35.00 by contacting Bethany Brown, Director of Advancement at St. Mary’s School. If you would like to see St. Mary’s School Chapel for yourself, please contact Bethany Brown first to set up an appointment. Bethany’s email address is bbrown@smschool.us.

Havurah Shir Hadash stained glass window

Kevin Christman stained glass
Stained glass window representing the Tree of Life, at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland. Artist is Kevin Christman. (photo by Havurah Shir Hadash)

Another work of religious art, at the Havurah in Ashland, also has deep meaning to Kevin. “When I did the stained glass window for the Havurah, the feedback I got from that, knowing that people were spiritually affected by a work of art that I did, was really impactful. It was an eye-opener to the power of art in a public setting and how it can affect people well beyond my lifetime.” 

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Ashland Public Art on the Bandersnatch trail (three articles)

You can read about the Elevation sculpture here.

Read about the Pacific Fisher mosaic here.

My article about the four-level Water is Life mosaic is here.

References:

Note: The feature photo shows sculptor Kevin Christman with his public artwork “Inorganic Compound” in October 2020. (photo by Peter Finkle)

Christman, Kevin. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. Kevin graciously shared some of his personal photos with me.

Edson, Libby. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. (Libby Edson is a former member of the Ashland Public Arts Commission.)

St. Mary’s School. The St. Mary’s Chapel: The Jewel Box of St. Mary’s School, L&R Publishing, 2020. 

Author: Peter Finkle

My name is Peter Finkle. I moved to Ashland in 1991. My email is walkashland-at-ashlandhome.net. I am a Husband, Father, Poet, Writer and Herbal Health Researcher.

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