Making a metal masterpiece

Caitlin Saniga

Rountree demonstrates to students how to make tools by tapering pieces of steel on a vertical belt sander. Photo by Christabel Devadoss

Credit: Ron Soltys

Tip, tip, tip. Tap. Tap.

Someone’s hammering sheet metal in the other room.


Someone else is sanding smooth the edges of a sterling silver ring.

Zet-zit, zet-zit, zet-zit. Zet-zit. Twiiiingg.

A beginner student breaks the hair-thin blade of her jeweler’s saw as she cuts the round edge of a copper circle.

Torches whisper from the soldering station. Water splashes in the washtub. A sheet of nickel snaps as someone jumps on the giant metal-cutter.

The Kent State metals studio is a symphony of noise, but for the moment, Miles Rountree can’t hear it.

She’s tucked away at her private workspace in the grad students’ room, listening to her own soundtrack — an iPod playlist of mellow musicians ranging from Sia to Kings of Leon.

For the moment, she’s caught up in the careful scratching and scraping of a pointy metal scribe into poppy-red-enameled metal. She’s making a deranged-looking man with a big, open mouth reach for a cheeseburger, and by the look of it, his hunger is “endless.” The word cascades repeatedly along his trembling frame.

For the moment, Rountree is busy making a masterpiece.

“In undergrad, I could get away with making work about whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have to tell anybody,” she says with a dainty southern drawl. “Now my work has a message.”

And her message is simple: America is obsessed with mass consumption and overproduction.

Miles from home

“Growing up in a small southern town and seeing the lifestyle there and then experiencing life somewhere else, it kind of made me re-evaluate the lifestyle that I grew up witnessing,” the 24-year-old North Carolina native said.

The last several years of her undergraduate career at East Carolina University, she lived without TV. The house she lived in wasn’t able to get cable, so she simply couldn’t watch TV. In the meantime, she focused on schoolwork and art projects. Even after she began graduate school at Kent State, she went a year without cable TV.

Just recently she moved to a new house that has cable, and the changes she sees since she’s been away have left an impression on her.

She says she remembers seeing a Dr Pepper commercial that used Queen’s song “I Want It All” for music. The lyrics, “I want it all. I want it all. I want it all, and I want it now,” related perfectly to her feelings about American consumerism.

Watching movies like Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation cemented these feelings.

“To see the things I see on TV now, it’s crazy,” she says. “The mass consumerism, the mass consumption, the ‘want everything,’ the ‘want it now’ — that’s been the biggest eye-opener for me.”

She sees examples of mass consumerism in other places, too.

“You walk into a grocery store, and all you want is deodorant, but there’s like 50,000 brands,” she says. “I mean who needs all that? I think it’s an interesting aspect of our world, and I think I could make interesting work about it.”

So, piece-by-piece, she’s creating a giant metal collage of a message.

Crafting a message

Part of Rountree’s work is an extensive, intricate collage of black steel-wire pins — each symbolic of consumerism, overproduction or greed. The black pins are intended to be spread out on a white background.

“I think the black lines against a white background are very powerful,” Rountree says. “I think the use of color would distract from the imagery.”

One-by-one, she crafts the pins. First she draws her concept. Then she creates it.

Each pin begins as soft steel wire, no thicker than an uncooked spaghetti noodle. She bends the wire into shape and then uses an oxyacetylene torch to weld the pieces together. The torch’s blue flame only needs a few seconds of contact before the metal melts together. After she welds the metal, she scrubs it with pewter powder to remove oxides and discoloration. Next she hammers the wire to make it flat and give it a thicker, bolder appearance. Finally, she gently reheats and blackens the metal, then seals it with paper wax.

The fruit of her labor is a flat, sturdy metal image — a loaf of bread with a power chord or a man with a funnel for one ear and a loudspeaker for the other.

Metal gets stronger as it is worked with, bent and hammered, so each piece is durable from the process of its creation.

“Despite the processes that she uses that are very time-consuming and laborious, her work is very playful and light,” said Sean Scully, a 25-year-old jewelry metals graduate student who works in the studio with Rountree. “She makes it seem very effortless.”

Her workspace

She can’t always listen to her own music on her iPod in the studio, but she really doesn’t mind the sounds of the other metalworkers.

There in her 8-by-8 workspace, she is surrounded by her shelves of inspiration — found trinkets, photos, drawings, art books and jewelry.

There is where her creations take shape.

“I love the intimacy of creating these little, tiny, precious objects,” she says, her hands held out, cupping an invisible creation.

“I love knowing that I can make something beautiful.”

Contact features correspondent Caitlin Saniga at [email protected].