The road leading to David Secrest’s studio above Somers was freshly covered with snow, unbroken by tire tracks. Yet on this sunny, cold February afternoon the robins had already arrived.
The glass panes of the enormous green wooden double doors that open onto Secrest’s studio flashed the bright winter sunlight. Upon the casements of the tall, arched windows myriad hand tools stood at the ready. Massive workbenches, built of both wood and iron, form the foundation for his work.
A renowned artist, sculptor and blacksmith, Secrest works in the log and stone building he and his father built in the mid-1980s. Built from logs sawn on site with a portable sawmill, it stands grand and rustic on this quiet 33-acre property. Its upper story houses another custom-built studio as well as living quarters for visitors and tenants.
Across the road, Secrest’s home is like yet another studio. Actually, it was initially intended to be one, and to include a ceramic shop, wood shop and smithy shop, but ultimately was converted into the Secrest family home. Built more than 45 years ago by his father, brother and David after the family moved from Rochester, New York, after David graduated from high school, the Northern European-style home is both handsome and innovative. Secrest says he enjoys working on his house just as much as working in his studio.
The two buildings are a long-standing architectural legacy of both transcendent beauty and endurance.
And so it is with Secrest’s art.
Working primarily with wrought iron and carbon steels, Secrest forms patterned plates by first fusing the two materials in his blacksmith forge, then draws them out into thin sheets and jelly-rolls them so they can be cut into cross-sections. The resulting pieces are tessellated and tacked together into larger sheets, creating an infinite variety of mosaic and checkerboard patterns.
Secrest’s work with iron has been described as though he is working with taffy.
He calls himself an experimentalist and process artist, brilliantly evident in the way he discovers how pieces of metal can be fused to form three-dimensional patterns using various materials such as iron filings, U-joint needle bearings, drill turnings, slivers of cable and steel bits broken like peanut brittle that, when pressed into metal, appear crystalline or, as Secrest suggests, like internal granite.
The pattern plates are then used in his sculptures, which many describe as having Egyptian or African or primordial influences.
And he’s OK with that.
As a kid, Secrest recalls he was always taking things apart, putting them back together and building things. He was given a mechanical mind, but was dyslexic.
“I had to figure things out for myself,” he said. “All through school I couldn’t just sit there. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
Once he got out of school, he told himself, “David, you don’t ever have to do something you don’t want to do again.”
With a father who was a potter and a mother who was a painter, he naturally gravitated toward art. As a kid, his uncle Phil taught him to weld. He lived with him during the summers and by junior high school age, he was doing metal work using bumpers from old cars and experimenting with oxidation and colorization inherent in the welding process. His work sold.
Ultimately, he carried many of the same processes into his later work.
Secrest also throws pots on his own hand-built potter’s wheel and is a woodworker. He has used his steel pattern plates and cast bronze as printing plates to emboss veneers on such woods as birch and mahogany, later using castable rubber to emboss the wood. In fact, he owns the patent on the process. His veneers have been incorporated into other artists’ work, including one-of-a-kind furniture pieces by Bigfork fine woodworking artist Carl Ambrose.
“I was made to make things,” he said. “That sense of utility. I always have liked that. When you finish a piece and you keep walking back to it … and you like it …. There is this thing that happens.”
Secrest believes we all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. For him it started with his artistic family. His younger brother Peter is a glassblower who has exhibited nationally and internationally.
At one time Secrest himself was an apprentice to a glassblower. As he watched him, he learned during the many hours he assisted him and instinctively knew what tools to hand him without needing to be asked. One day the artist invited him to try blowing glass.
“I began intuitively blowing. I sat down at that bench and my body began doing the work.”
Secrest speaks easily and softly about his art processes. But his studio is a powerhouse of machinery acquired through auctions, sales, word of mouth and plenty of research. He has also built his own machinery.
He salvaged his enormous turn-of-the-last century 1,000-pound steam hammer press from a scrap yard in Butte. He not only reconditioned it, but also converted it to a pneumatic press, and it operates as if it were brand new.
He also has a 35-pound pneumatic press, a 200-pound mechanical hammer press, a drill press he outfitted with a custom-made fixture for drilling mortise and tenon holes, a couple of forges, and a roller press he built himself.
His art takes time. Fortunately, he never needs to worry about efficiency or economy. His artwork evolves continuously as he guides it through multiple processes, from fusing and forging to bending, hammering, casting and acid etching.
The resulting textures can catch and throw light like a prism.
In 2017, Secrest was named Master Metalsmith by the Metal Museum. Founded 40 years ago on historic property in Memphis, Tennessee, the museum now houses a residence for artists, the museum and a library.
The museum’s Master Metalsmith series began in 1983 to honor the most influential metal artists of the day, bringing more than 30 internationally acclaimed metalsmiths to Memphis for solo exhibitions.
The pieces that were brought to the exhibit held in Secrest’s honor reflected the entire scope of his artistic career. Seeing some of them again for the first time in years was a humbling moment.
“To see those old pieces and still appreciate where they came from had given me a great relationship with my own work,” he said.
Secrest has also taught blacksmithing at the prominent Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, as well as the historic Penland School of Craft in Penland, North Carolina.
While Secrest chose metal sculpture and blacksmithing as his craft, in part, because he recognized that not many artists were working in the field, it also appealed to him because of his love for uniqueness, pragmatism, and his natural love of machines.
He wants his art to be unencumbered by preconceptions or pigeon-holed and hopes in viewing it that it is open to everyone to discover for themselves their own interpretations.
“Everything’s been done before,” Secrest concludes. “However, everything is an experiment.” His advice to young craftsmen and artists is both simple and wise.
“Spend time watching. You’ll learn.”
Community Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or email@example.com.
“The pattern plates were developed to provide a pallet to draw from for subsequent work. Rather than producing materials with several layers that are folded upon each other many times like ‘Damascus,’ I wanted to see what I could do with just two layers, one of steel, one of wrought iron, rolled together. Doing so allows the basic structural differences in the materials to stand in greater graphic relief.” — David Secrest