Mixed in among the naturally occurring plants and animals at Airlie Gardens this summer will be handcrafted stainless steel doubles.
Beginning May 19, shiny dragonflies, beetles, gladiolas, irises and weeping willows forged by Chapel Hill artists Gary Caldwell and Holly Felice will take over as the gardens’ summer art installation.
Caldwell is the creator of the gardens’ butterfly house hanging mobile and stainless steel azalea, and brought around 15 new pieces, all collaborations with Felice, to install Wednesday, May 14.
For Caldwell, working with metal began in the late 1960s when he would create art during the time he was supposed to be practicing welding in the U.S. Navy.
“I became a lousy welder but a good artist,” Caldwell said.
After a brief time working on abstract expressionist paintings and neon art, Caldwell rekindled his love for working with metals when he moved to Chapel Hill. He now primarily works with stainless steel.
“I chose stainless because of its beauty and luminosity and its almost holographic quality in certain lights,” he said. “I have about five tricks I use that make the stainless steel look like this.”
Although she has been working with metals for a shorter amount of time — just longer than eight years — Caldwell said Felice is skilled in her craft and the demand for his pieces grew when the two began working together.
Where Caldwell’s favorite subjects are insects like beetles and dragonflies, Felice’s forte is crafting flowers like gladiolas and irises out of the stainless steel.
“It has taken me a long time to admit to myself that I just love making flowers,” Felice said. “I went to Appalachian State University and they really push contemporary and conceptual art, and I finally had to say, ‘I like making flowers, sorry.’”
While some of the steel Caldwell and Felice use is scrap, most of it is new and requires imagination to see something like a beetle eyeball in a stainless soup ladle. Manufacturing his own tools is also something Caldwell has adapted, like making an air press mold that allows him to dimple the beetle’s shell.
To color, texture and shape the steel, Caldwell and Felice use a method that involves a series of molding, buffing and heating. The colors in the final products come from knowing how hot to heat the steel to make it turn a certain color.
The inspiration for the pieces made for the Airlie Gardens installment came from Caldwell and Felice’s love for nature.
“We just love nature and we love things that are accessible to the average person to where a person that doesn’t necessarily like high-end art can say, ‘Oh, I like dragonflies and trees,’” Caldwell said. “Plus they are big and beautiful and permanent because stainless is forever.”
Although it appears the sculptures would take weeks or months to create, Caldwell said on average it only takes three days for the two to complete a piece.
“We work hard and smart,” Caldwell said.
The team of stainless steel sculptors has pieces in galleries around the United States, but Felice said she and Caldwell want to do more public art installments because of how large the pieces can be. Felice’s gladiolas come in at 9 feet tall with the other pieces similarly proportioned.
As Caldwell benefitted from Felice’s skills, she said he has also helped her gain recognition in an art form not typically associated with women.
“This is our debut show as partners in public art, and we have been working on the show for about a year now,” Felice said. “I think there is a lot of sexism with me being a young female in metal sculpture and it is very easy for people to not take me seriously, but [Caldwell] has always been there helping to make sure I’m recognized.”
Caldwell and Felice’s stainless sculptures will remain in Airlie Gardens through Sept. 28, and both said they were excited for more of their work to be on display in the gardens.
“Once you get good at something that is all people want, and they say my best attribute really is modesty,” Caldwell said, laughing. “The trick of what we are doing is the ability to work with stainless the way no one else is.”