Artist Transitions from Soft Paper to Heavy Metals

Iowa-based Gail Chavenelle is proof that it’s never too late to embark on a new adventure. At the age of 50, the former school teacher became a full-time metal sculptor.

AWS Publications | February 25, 2021 | Processes
Welding Digest ►  Artist Transitions from Soft Paper to Heavy Metals

Iowa-based Gail Chavenelle is proof that it’s never too late to embark on a new adventure. At the age of 50, the former school teacher became a full-time metal sculptor.

However, her transition into metal art was a slow and progressive one that began with paper — Fig. 1. As a child, she enjoyed making paper dolls and manipulating paper to create unique shapes. As an adult, this hobby expanded to include elaborate 3D paper sculptures. Fig.1Fig. 1 — Metal Artist Gail Chavenelle stands with the 5-ft-tall, 3/16-in.-thick mild steel sculpture she created for St. Mark Youth Enrichment in Dubuque, Iowa. The piece was laser cut, joined with gas metal arc welding, and finished with a penny vein powder coat. 

 

The idea to venture outside the world of paper came when Chavenelle’s son spilled milk on a paper sculpture, spoiling her hours of hard work. Instead of crying over spilt milk, Chavenelle decided to experiment with materials that have greater lasting power, like metal. 

“I had to find something more permanent,” she recalled. “I became interested in taking a sheet of metal and expanding it into a form. I think of a sheet of metal as permanent paper.” 

 

With a Little Help from My Friends 

 

With the aid of a blacksmith friend, Chavenelle began working with metal flashing, which shares some characteristics with paper due to its thin gauge. Just as she did with paper, Chavenelle cut the metal flashing with scissors, bent it into the desired 3D shapes, and used manual methods to impart texture. At the time, Chavenelle did not know how to weld, so she utilized bending and folding techniques to join the individual metal flashing components. 

Although metal flashing enabled Chavenelle to replicate her paper art using a stronger material, it didn’t garner much public attention. With the guidance of artisan and fabricator friends, Chavenelle learned how to perform plasma cutting and gas metal arc welding (GMAW), which allowed her to branch out into mild steel and stainless steel. This new endeavor was well-received, leading to sales. 

“I did not make money from my pieces until I started using steel,” she recollected. “Galleries began to show an interest and actually bought things, so that was pretty exciting.” 

Chavenelle’s artistic enterprise with metal eventually led to her launching her own business, called Chavenelle Studio Metalworks Ltd. (chavenellestudio.com), which she has been growing for the past 20-plus years. Although Chavenelle did well locally when she first started, the business didn’t take flight until she branched out nationally by creating a website and joining multiple online marketplaces dedicated to artisans. 

“You can’t just sell locally. You have to have a bigger market,” she explained. “Once you’re on the Internet, the reach is big enough where you can find the little niche people who respond to your work.” 

 

Sculpting Happiness and Inclusivity 

 

Those who seek out Chavenelle’s creations are drawn by her positive themes, which make people relax, give thanks, mourn, or commemorate life’s special moments. Her masterpieces take the shape of a wide range of mood-elevating figures, including playful animals (Fig. 2), joyous people, and tranquil angels — just to name a few. Fig.2Fig. 2 — These 6.5-ft cat and 7.5-ft dog sculptures were brought to life using 1/4-in.-thick mild steel, which was laser cut, joined with GMAW, and finished with a red powder coat. 

 

“I make things that are happy and that make people breathe more easily,” she said. “They hopefully make people feel a little bit better.” 

In addition to inspiring joy, her metal sculptures are designed with inclusivity in mind. To represent all people and highlight the simple beauty of the sheet metal, she keeps the design minimal and avoids adding discernable features or using too many welds — Fig. 3. Fig.3Fig. 3 — Chavenelle poses with “Jardin de la Paz,” a 9-ft-tall, 1⁄4-in. mild steel sculpture she was commissioned to construct. 

 

“My work is inclusive. A head is just a bent shape. It has no features and no hair, so it can be any ethnicity and any age,” she said. “I take the opportunity to be as inclusive as possible so it’s a celebration of everyone.” 

Her work also ranges significantly in size, from 5-in. cake toppers and lighter-gauge home garden décor to 9-ft-tall commissioned sculptures for public spaces, including street exhibits, neighborhood parks, and clinics.  

However, Chavenelle’s work is not solely for public enjoyment. As a great-grandmother, she often pays tribute to important family moments by creating a sculpture. 

“I mark stages of their lives with a sculpture. They probably don’t want it, but they’re gonna get it anyways,” she said with a laugh. “You gotta be careful with being my friend because you get a lot of sculptures.” 

 

This article was written by Katie Pacheco (associate editor of the Welding Journal) for the American Welding Society.