James Wagner pored over the body of a half-constructed metal bass at Clark College on a recent Monday evening, pondering his next steps.
How’s he going to affix the bridge? Will the neck sit at the right angle?
“This is not perfect by any stretch,” he admits, pointing to the spot he plans to affix the neck. He might have to reweld some things, he muses.
At the Clark College welding lab, more than a dozen students are having similar conversations with themselves. Local metal artist Beth Heron’s metal sculpting class is winding down for the quarter, and students are busy putting the finishing touches on various art projects.
“It’s a miracle,” said Heron, whose own sculpted pieces can be seen across Clark County. “You’re pretty sure a couple people won’t get done, but they walk in and their project is completely done.”
Considering most of her students started this quarter with limited or no knowledge of how to weld, it makes sense that Heron considers her students’ progress miraculous.
Heron’s class needs no prerequisites, meaning it attracts a wide variety of students across various fields of study. Students spend a few weeks studying the theory of welding, then dive into an art project in the studio.
“We have so much equipment we need to learn,” she said.
Heron, who owns Ridgefield studio Blue Studio Metals, brings more than 40 years of metalworking experience to the class, helping walk her beginning students through working with the medium.
“Metal inherently has structure to it,” Heron said. “You can do some pretty thin, little wispy pieces of metal and it still has pretty incredible strength.”
Scott Patzer is a professional artist who tried his hand at a welding program once before but said it was “really intense.”
“It was too much to handle,” he said.
But Patzer, who worked as a glass blower for years, is now studying welding full time. Judging from the 4-foot-wide undulating lamp he’s building — it loosely resembles the Egyptian Eye of Horus — this time around has been a success for the 37-year-old artist.
The class has been accessible for Patzer, who credits Heron and the structure of the class for his success thus far.
“This has pushed me to push my creativity,” he said. “I love this kind of stuff.”
Wagner, a 39-year-old engineering student, has moonlighted in music and art for 20 years. A bad experience with a grinder in his dad’s fabrication shop as a teen turned him off from the idea of working with metal for years, but he said about 10 years ago he wanted to try his hand at welding.
But Wagner said he struggled to find other programs where he could start welding without extensive prerequisites — which would have taken too much time away from his degree. It wasn’t until he and his wife moved to Vancouver from Moses Lake and he enrolled at Clark College that he was able to pursue welding because of Heron’s program.
“I get kind of shaky when I’m just doing math assignments,” he said. “This is an outlet.”
Wagner’s bass is about a quarter of the size of a classical upright base. When completed, he plans to put a patina on it to give it a “real crunchy” rust effect. In theory, it should be a fully functioning instrument by the time he presents it to the class on Wednesday.
Wagner believes the hands-on experience will make him a better engineer after he finishes his studies.
“Anything in the industrial arts that I can pick up along the way is going to help me be a better engineer,” he said. “I want to be more than just a book guy.”
Some students’ pieces will be showcased in Clark College’s Art Student Annual, which runs from May 9 to June 9.