“Want me to light the torch?”
The artist Miya Ando, who is known for her post-minimalist works on big sheets of steel, is standing by the smaller of her two welding machines, both of which are embedded in a bank of gray machinery inside her Brooklyn studio.
Of course I agree to her offer, and she angles the welding torch, a thin wand that was buried between two large gray gas tanks, toward the floor. The torch shoots out a blue flame that’s sharp as a blade and louder than I expect. It sounds like a commercial jet is descending overhead.
“This place is great,” she says, excitedly. “They let me do whatever I want. Fire? Chemicals? Anything.”
“So it’s usually pretty toxic in here?” I ask.
“Totally toxic,” she says enthusiastically, extinguishing the flame. “But I made an effort this morning - 'Oh, Rich is going to come over so I’m not going to use any gnarly stuff and poison my guest'. But there is something that is – it’s fun. I’m all about transforming surfaces and materials.”
Cold Steel, Warm Heart
Most of Ando’s work is on large plates of steel, which she manipulates with fire and patinas. “You can make steel turn any color,” she says.
A commission for The Healing Place, a women’s shelter in Brooklyn, is comprised of 12 large plates of steel hung side-by-side in a circular chapel, with the color of the plates gradually becoming lighter.
“I wanted it to go from laterally black to blue to silver,” Ando says, explaining the duality of the material. “Steel is strong but also soft. And [the piece] goes from dark to light, to kind of help the women to hope.”
In January, the 9/11 London Project Foundation commissioned Ando to build a memorial to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. She is using 25-foot heavy steel girders from the World Trade Center, given to her by the Port Authority of New York, as a foundation for the piece. She doesn’t plan on adding anything, just polishing one element on the rusted beams to a high shine. She is refraining from talking too much about the project, but admits it has given her a newfound interest in rust, which hasn’t always been the case.
She glances around her studio.
“These are all steel, so if you picked it up, the little bit of moisture in your hands will create rust,” she explains. “I’ve come in the next day and there’s just a little rusty thumb print, because any moisture rusts the metal.”
She laughs. “I had a sign over there that said, ‘No tears in this shop. Don’t rust my fucking work.’ It was for me.”
More Metal Than You Can Stick in a Microwave
Ando’s studio is filled with all things metal. Sheets of stainless steel - large and small - hang on, or lean against, the walls. On the floor are skateboard decks – Ando is sponsored by Element – shaped out of diamond plate steel, weighing 50 pounds each. On a bench are small jars of metal powder, which Ando mixes with urethane to form a kind of paste that she paints with.
A kimono coated with silver leaf hangs from the ceiling like a curtain. Another kimono, made out of stainless steel plates connected by silver loops – inspired by samurai armor – lays flat on the floor.
Cutting a slight figure, Ando might seem an unlikely person to be moving all this heavy metal. But it is in her blood. Her father, who is Russian-American, built hot rods. “He was constantly rebuilding something, everything from really old Model As and Ts – he was a car dude,” she says.
“I was introduced to brazing,” she goes on, “which is melting solder and sticking things together, and just really basic things by watching my father work in the shop and helping him – this was when I was really little – and he would always have me hold a piece of dark glass and watch him weld.”
On her mother’s side, Ando, who was raised in Okayama, Japan and Santa Cruz, California, is a 16th generation descendant of Bizen samurai sword makers. She grew up in a Buddhist temple, hearing stories about her family’s heritage from her grandfather and great uncles. “To me, I think there’s something to that – the idea being there’s an attachment and identity to the material and a commitment to what that represents.”
Her art, she says, is an extension of that notion. “I’m also utilizing their materials but in a contemporary way,” she explains. “This material represents some of the hardest stuff – a bridge is made out of it, it holds our buildings up – but then to go from there to make [the steel] look ethereal and really transitory and soft. It’s really interesting to get it to go in these unexpected ways. And it’s manmade and calling to its natural elements.”
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter.
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