Alexandria art lovers and history buffs, you are in for a real treat.
Bernard Collin, a contemporary sculptor from Southern California by way of Burgundy, France, has created and forged three stainless steel panels. A tour de force that pays a unique homage to the people and places that make up the rich history of the 265-year-old seaport, the public art pieces have been installed on the new Harris Teeter (opening late summer) building at the corner of Madison and N. St. Asaph.
We were so impressed we got in touch with him. With fine assistance from his wife Mary, Collin answered these questions.
How did you get started with sculpturing?
I have always played around with various materials to create sculptures. Growing up on our family’s 500 year old chateaux, La Boutiére,, that was a working farm and a Bed and Breakfast, there were plenty of objects to play with. Stone, clay, old tools, metal and wire…. My mother still has a lot of these first pieces. Most of them had a humorous inspiration.
I was always creating sculptures but that was not my career path. I studied technical metalworking in Macon, France. I starting making a living with metal art when I moved to my wife’s native southern California in the 1980’s (in Venice Beach and Malibu).
How did you get chosen for the Alexandria work?
I was very fortunate to have been chosen for this commission. We have worked with the art consulting company, Artists Circle Fine Art, out of N. Potomac, MD. They found us online. We did some small commissions for them, then out of the blue they brought up this very interesting project in Alexandria. They took a big leap of faith with us.
How long did it take to do the work and what were the challenges?
We started discussing this project about a year and a half ago. At the time we weren’t sure of the size. Obviously there were quite a few procedures to go through and different approvals needed, including Artists Circle Fine Art having to sketch one of the panels (12’ high by 8’wide) on cardboard and holding it up where one of the panels would be, to show the city’s (not sure that they are called) ‘art commission’.
Besides the expected delays, the whole project went quite smoothly.
Before shipping, a modification was requested to have the designs more open, in order to see some of the brick from the niches. As it turns out, we agree that it was a smart choice.
I was very worried about the installation but they had a competent team and that also went very smoothly.
I was amazed how much of the city’s history your panels show. You are not from here so you must have done a lot of research. What books did you read, what websites did look at, or perhaps you did pay us a visit or two?
I must say that all of my research was done on the internet. Hours and hours of sitting at the computer. I have never visited Alexandria but hope to someday.
You say on your website you can get hurt sculpting. What type of injuries have you sustained?
The most important is that I protect my eyes and lungs. The worst injury that I have had (many times) is from flying microscopic pieces of metal in my eyes. Quite painful and always requires a trip to the doctor’s office.
I always use a hand-held plasma cutter and must protect my lungs from the fumes.
Grinding the metal is also very difficult (risk of cutting, burning, flying metal, and the noise and heat).
Although the panels are already unwrapped, will there be a ceremony? (You certainly deserve one!)
Thank you. No ceremony as far as I know. Perhaps when the building is open for business.
How does your French upbringing inform your work?
In general the work is more detailed and personalized, and often with a touch of whimsy and humor. Old world craftsmanship is still alive and well in France. For example, I sketch the design on the metal and do all the cutting myself, with a Thermal Dynamics plasma cutter (a very fine electrical torch following by compressed air to free the form). I have never used a cnc plasma cutting table (Computerized Numerical Control).