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Saturday, June 7, 2014


"Testosterone Crystal" — based on an electron microscope Image.  First in a series of three: Testosterone, Adrenaline, Progesterone. Work in Progress by Kristen Sierra
Copper artist Kristen Sierra’s piece titled “Testosterone Crystal,” does exactly what she hoped it would do; it causes people to startle, stop, and ponder things  unseen by the human eye. Like many artists, Sierra finds inspiration in nature, but sometimes at a microscopic level. Lately, she has been working from photographic images of structures and lifeforms so tiny it takes an electron microscope to see them. Sierra interprets these images through an ancient metalworking technique called repoussé, using tools to press against copper, thereby creating a design or image in relief. Exquisite and mesmerizing, Sierra’s works are rich with shimmering glints of the pinkish metal, jewel-like colors, and textures that invite touch. Her website is Amazon Red Art.

After originating in France, repoussé enjoyed great popularity in Europe during the 16th-17th centuries. Obviously, many artists before Sierra have used this technique, but none have used it on microscopic subjects. “Nobody else has done a testosterone crystal in copper,” Sierra told me in a recent interview. “I can guarantee you that I’m the only person on the planet who’s done this.”

"Nautilus" — Current work by Kristen Sierra

“Testosterone Crystal” required 150 hours of intense concentration to complete and launched a series which Sierra said had “catapulted” her into a relationship with a scientist—a long-distance relationship of the most proper kind, that is. She lives on a boat in Seattle with her husband and the scientist, Dennis Kunkel, Ph.D, now lives in Hawaii, although he earned his graduate and post graduate degrees in Seattle, at the University of Washington. Kunkel is a photomicrographer, highly trained and experienced in the use of “optical light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM),” according to his website. He is known around the world for the contributions his research has made to botany, microbiology, neurobiology, and other scientific fields. His wondrous and colorful photographic images simply stunned Sierra with their beauty when she first saw them. 

“One night, I was having a hard time sleeping,” she said, “so I sat up until about five o’clock in the morning, and I looked at his website for over four hours. By the time I finished, I was crying. I was just stunned that so much of the world I live in, I’ve had no exposure to, or rather that I’ve had so much exposure to, but no knowledge of. It was probably one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.”

"Fractal Series 2/5" — current work by Kristen Sierra

Sierra got up the nerve to contact him and sent a short email. She told him she was an artist, and said she would really enjoy talking to him about the images. They communicated back for forth for about a month before she ended up making and sending to him, a piece of her copper work based on something he liked. Since then, he has been licensing Sierra to do these images in copper.

“All that from just not being able to go to sleep one night,” she said. “It just opened up a door, and you never know what’s going to be behind that door. It will be an interesting series of things. My next piece based on his work is adrenalin and then I’ll do progesterone. Then these pieces will fit side by side, as a triptych.”

In my interview with Sierra, I learned about her process, tools, feelings about her art, and more.

Candace Brown, for Good Life Northwest: Please tell me how you define repoussé, which I know is French in origin?

Kristen Sierra: My translation is “to push into.” Now, when you’re dealing with bossing, you’re working from the front of the item, so that is different. The French are pushing from the back. So, say I drew the image on the front of the piece of copper; then I would turn it over and press into and up, or into and down. If I turn it over, and I work from the front where the design was drawn, then that is bossing. (Note: Sierra said the term “embossing” is usually used when the technique is applied to paper.)

I’m more of a non-traditional copper worker because I use both of those techniques and I’ve been described by the University of Washington’s School of Art’s sculpture graduate department. I’ll use anything. I was really lucky to get to put on a demonstration there once.

"Three Ways of Telling Time"   Current work by Kristen Sierra

Brown: How and when did you learn about this technique?

Sierra: When I started this, I was eight years old. I was in the California educational system, and at the time, they highly valued art and music. We were exposed to both on a regular basis. My second grade teacher decided this was something we could all do together, so she brought in everything we needed—a pen and a piece of copper and a piece of linoleum— and that was what we got started with. She taught us how to use copper.

It seems like we’ve lost focus on art and music and recess in school. Those things really had a profound effect on my life. It’s kind of crazy. I started doing this again full time when I turned 50.

Brown: I would like to hear about your process, Kristen. 

Sierra: The process is fairly simple. First, I decide what the design is going to be. If necessary, I’ll take a photocopy and expand that view. I start with sheets of 8 oz. copper—an industry designation for that type of copper in that particular weight. I generally buy it in lengths up to about 150 feet at a time. When I started out, it was about $3.60 per pound. Now it’s about $11.60. 

tracing the enlarged electron microscope image

Brown: So, you have your copper. Then what? 

Sierra: I need to define the lowest spots first. I have a copy of the image done in black and white, and I tape the copy to the front of the copper. With a ball point pen, I trace the areas that will be the low spots. I then check the work for areas I may have missed by turning the copper piece over with the black and white copy attached. 

When I have all the low spots defined, I will remove the copy. The tracing is too light to work from so, I will then go back over each line and apply pressure as I draw over it.  This creates a well defined area which I will then fill in. In “Testosterone Crystal,” I was stippling with a double ball stylus. Stippling is a relief technique that involves making small, round dents placed close to one another, one at a time, filling each area. It takes hours. 

After the stippling is finished, the photo copy will once again be attached to the front side of the copper. I will then trace the rest of the design on to the copper.  Depending on the complexity of the design, I might repeat this process a total of three times. At the end of each phase I will remove the copy and define the line of the design clearly.

I’ve already traced the major areas that I’m going to do relief on, so I flip that copper over and then press into the copper. I use often use clay as a surface under the piece if I have a large depression I’m going to be needing to do. In some cases I might use core board that has a give to it. In the old days they used things that were very messy—tar, and wax—and all that stuff sticks to the copper. Then you have to clean that off. I don’t want to mess with that so I kind of modified that.

Historical work by Kristen Sierra — "Here Comes the Sun" — Owner, M. Green
Brown: So, now you have the texture, and then you apply the color, correct?

Sierra: There are some stages in between, depending on how much you worked the metal. “Testosterone Crystal” actually had a huge amount of metal fatigue. When metal gets hard and stiff and doesn’t want to be worked any longer, it is because you’ve scattered the molecules. If you heat the surface, the molecules kind of line up and relax. This makes the metal workable again.  This process can be repeated as often as needed during the work. Cooling the copper is done by letting it again reach room temperature slowly.  A propane torch or an industrial heat gun are my favorite tools for annealing the copper.

Brown: What are your other tools? 

Sierra: They’re very simple. A lot of them are styluses. I have a whole bunch of paper “stumps” (tightly wound paper sticks used in drawing to smooth out charcoal). They are excellent to give you a nice smooth line. You can push fairly hard on them into the copper, and it produces a nice smooth surface. I use some clay molding tools, pens, just about anything—screwdriver tips, a blandishing hammer, a jeweler’s hammer— depending on what kind of design I want to produce. I use whatever is available, generally speaking. 

"Sunny"— Current work by Kristen Sierra  

Brown: After you manipulate the metal, how do you apply the color?

Sierra: This is the part that is probably the most fascinating. When I first started doing this stuff, I was using a lot of very toxic chemicals. Ferric chloride is used in etching; I’ve use that. I’ve used ammonium and hydrochloric acid. I have asthma, so I’ve kind of gone away from that. A lot of the pieces I’ve done in the last two years have wax pencil as a base. So, it’s a high quality colored pencil, pen and alcohol ink. It gives me a huge range of colors that I wouldn’t normally have available to me. and in order to get those things to stick to the copper, I’ve had to sandblast the copper. 

I’ve just discovered a bunch of alcohol inks. When we were kids, we used India ink to darken the surface and then we’d rub it off, and the low spots would all be dark. This works pretty much the same. The alcohol ink just evaporates almost instantaneously. On “Testosterone Crystal,” I would sand it down after it dried and then reapply, then sand, and then reapply. I use 400-1,000 grit sand paper and actually sand the surface. I may paint the entire piece, then let it dry thoroughly, and sand it, and clean it off after that, and use a fixative spray to keep it from smearing. Then I will apply another layer of color. Then, depending on how it looks, I may sand that off as well, then apply another layer of fixative. So you’ve got multiple layers of fixative and color. It creates depth to the piece.

Historical work by Kristen Sierra   "Helios"— Owner, J. Shepard

Brown: Is there a final finish?

Sierra: There is. I’ve been using a gloss lacquer over the top of them so that people can touch it. I try not to put glass over the pieces because it creates moisture. As soon as the copper heats up it creates a mini environment inside of the frame. 

Sometimes, especially with copper work, I’ve felt that the tactile experience is really important. If people couldn’t touch it, it was just really disturbing to them. With my work, I think it’s really important for people to be able to touch it. 

Brown: What aspect of it brings you the most pleasure?

Sierra: I think the most interesting part of finishing a piece is the coloration of it. This alcohol ink has opened up lots of doors, so I’ve really been enjoying that. It would be called patina if it was a chemical in the traditional way, and I’m calling it patina because its the finish on the copper. I really love to do that part of it. It’s like being a painter. It’s opening up doors I didn’t know I would have in expressing color.

When I turned 50 ... I’ve described this in a number of places as having an explosion. I read everything I could get my hands on. I just dedicated a great deal of time to doing small projects and learning different techniques and learning how copper responds to heat and patinas. It has been a stunning eleven-year experience.

Brown: How do people respond to your artwork?

Sierra:  I have people come into my tent and they say, “Oh, my!” I do think it’s unusual, and I do think that when you put these things together, it creates something that hasn’t been seen before. In my opinion, if it was that moving for me to see the electron microscope images, what a surprise it will be for people walking into a museum or gallery and seeing something like this.

Even as Kristen Sierra focuses on her larger body of work—the electron microscope images in particular—she continues to sell other pieces. You can find her as a regular vendor at the Redmond Saturday Market, in Redmond, WA. She will also be at an event called Kirkland Uncorked on the weekend of July 18-20, 2014.

All photos were provided by the artist and used with permission.

Contact information

A rotated close-up of "Testosterone Crystal" by Kristen Sierra in different lighting.
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1 comment:

Bill E said...

Candace...your pictures are wonderful but I'd sure like to see these works in person. Thanks for sharing! Bill