“Through Your Spotting Scope”
A steel wall mural at the K’esugi Ken Interpretive Center in Denali State Park
After applying for the commission in mid-March of 2016, I received notice in early May I’d been selected as one of five finalists. I submitted my proposal a couple of weeks later, and in early June, received an exciting email saying I’d been awarded the commission.
By late September, with an artwork agreement in place, and materials in hand, I began work on the project. Now, after more than five hundred hours of work, the design has become reality. The 13.5′ wide x 9.5′ high, multi-layered, heat tinted, steel engraving was installed in May of 2017 where it can now be seen with the real Denali in the background.
The wall sculpture was made using techniques I’ve developed over the last 25 years for making heat tinted, engraved steel pictures. Heat tints are the oxidation colors resulting from heating the metal to various temperatures; the same colors a blacksmith uses to judge the heat when tempering a tool.
The visual effect from these pieces is quite dynamic. The steel surface is ground using carefully chosen abrasives and deliberate movements to model the forms, and create patterns and textures. These give the metal a great sense of depth and movement that changes dynamically with the angle of light and your point of view.
Exactly how this type of steel wall art is made is explained in detail on this page through pictures and descriptions of the actual process of making Through Your Spotting Scope.
Though it needs to be seen in person to fully experience this dynamic effect, the following images will give you a sense of what you’ll see if you visit the Interpretive Center. The first group are details of the scenes from around the perimeter. They depict some of the animals found in Denali State Park and some of the parks cultural uses. Towards the end of this page, you’ll find closeups of each of the various parts of the wall piece.
More views Through Your Spotting Scope
The Alaska Range, glacier and midnight sun.
A bull moose looks up from an afternoon of browsing.
A snowshoe hare bolts across a snowy meadow.
A dall sheep lays on a hill top enjoying the morning sun.
Raven flies quietly across the face of the moon.
The braided Chulitna river depicted in engraved steel.
As they are wont to do, this redback vole snuck it’s way in at the last minute.
The sound of a bushplane can be a familiar one in the wilds of Alaska.
A wary ground squirrel enjoys a morning munch.
A trumpeter swan flies southward as the chill hits the autumn air.
A lone wolf lopes easily down a hill, with that look in his eyes.
A hoary marmot whistles from a rocky outcropping.
A bull caribou looking out from beneath his large antlers.
Another detail of the spruce forest and braided river.
A red fox walks a grassy ridge.
A hiker travels one of the many trails in Denali State Park.
A lynx pads softly over the barren snow.
A grizzly bear forages beneath a lichen covered rock.
A prickly porcupine on a dusky amble over a dry river bed.
A salmon swims against the current of the glacially fed waters.
The birch bark basket is full and it’s time for some blueberry pie.
The Evolution of the Design
I was born and raised in Fairbanks. My father was a wildlife biologist who taught at UAF. He spent a good deal of time on the north side of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park studying grizzlies. Not long after he and my mother moved to Alaska in 1954, they spent summers in the park with youngsters in tow.
I apparently took my first steps atop Cranberry Ridge overlooking Camp Denali, a wilderness camp for park tourists owned by our neighbors Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter. When I was growing up, I was lucky to spend a week of each summer at Camp Denali visiting Romany, Ginny’s daughter.
This gave me a deep sense of the animals and landscapes north of the range. I’ve lived in Homer, Alaska for the last 16 years and have traveled the Parks Highway more often. This has made me familiar with the area south of the range where Denali State Park is located.
These latent experiences were brought to the fore as I worked on the design for the artwork; along with the odd Google image search. The following pictures show the different stages the design went through as it evolved.
This was the drawing that I included with my proposal.
The last edit was to change the orientation of the river to flow from east to west. One additional animal was added around the perimeter. See if you can spot this ubiquitous creature in the photos of the finished peice.
Enlarging the Drawings
Engraving the Drawings
I use small cutoff wheels and diamond or carbide burrs. Though I generally follow the drawing closely, having it there as a reference gives me freedom for spontaneity when I’m actually engraving the lines.
Grinding and Coloring
Everything in my grinding area is on wheels and adjustable. I built my grinding workbench using the base of an electric orthodontist chair. This allows it to be raised and lowered with ease. A large, tilting, rotary table sits on a down rigger swivel on the top of the chair support. The whole affair sits on a large lazy Susan swivel and a rolling dolly. All these adjustments allow me to get the work in a comfortable position for grinding.
The metal is held to the work surface by magnets that can be turned on and off. An adjustable arm light mounted to my rolling grinder stand completes the setup. The light has to be at just the right angle to be able to see the grinding marks I’m making. If it’s not, it looks like I’m getting the effect I’m after, but from another angle, it looks like a mess.
These steel engravings are made by grinding or wire brushing the surface of the metal, then heating it with a torch to produce the oxidation colors or heat tints.
The oxidation colors appear at specific temperatures, first light straw, then a darker straw which then fades into purple. The fine line between dark straw and purple gives an orange-red. From purple, the colors run to dark blue, light blue and then a subtle green before beginning to run the colors again in more pastel tones.
Each color is a guide to where I am in the heating process. The heating has to be continuous or I’ll loose the reference that each color provides. As I approach the desired color, I have to be patient and heat slowly so as not to have it run past to a hotter color. Now and then I’ll use a blast of compressed air to quickly cool an area that is beginning to overheat.
Nevertheless, there are times when I go too far, the metal gets too hot, and have to regrind and texture whole areas in order to reheat them to the correct color. When coloring uneven shapes, I have to be aware of the size of each section and play the torch accordingly, as smaller sections will heat more quickly than large ones. Subtle variations of color are achieved by concentrating the heat in certain areas.
The pictures are colored working from hot to cold. By grinding and heating repeatedly, different colors can exist side by side and can be isolated to specific areas. Colors will not change as long as they are not reheated to a temperature hotter than that used to make them. After all the coloring is finished, the silver, or “white” areas of the picture are made by grinding to bare metal.
A multitude of effects is achievable using various abrasives and grinding patterns. The light reflects differently from each texture and pattern. I use sandpaper, rubber bonded abrasives, surface conditioning wheels and disks, grinding stones, carbide and diamond burs, wire brushes and others; all in various configurations.
Different abrasives can be used one after the other in the same area to get effects not possible with a single abrasive. The speed of the tool, and the amount of pressure applied are also part of my artistic palette.
Working on the last couple of detail images for “Through Your Spotting Scope,” an engraved and heat tinted steel wall piece for Denali State Park. In this video, I’m doing the third heat on a hiking design to get the brown on the boot and some reddish color in the background. #Jeffreyhdeansculpturestudio #linkinbio #throughyourspottingscope #sculpturestudio #wallart #wallarts #metalart #steelart #engravedsteel #heattints #process #hiking #denalistatepark #hikingboots
With all the perimeter designs ground and colored, it was time to begin on the central landscape which is made in three layers.
Working on grinding the foreground, which includes a braided river. Getting ready for blueish heat. #Jeffreyhdeansculpturestudio #linkinbio #throughyourspottingscope #sculpturestudio #wallart #wallarts #metalart #steelart #engravedsteel #heattints #process #braidedriver #denalistatepark #percentforart #glacialriver #chulitnariver
Making the Frame
The patterns were glued to the resawn fir boards.
The edges of each of the 75 or so sections were cut to the edge of the pattern with a bandsaw.
This was done with a table mounted router. The cut was made by guiding the drawing on the pattern beneath the tip of a pencil aligned with the edge of the cutter. A feather board provided the fulcrum for guiding the wood through the cut. The smaller pieces were guided by a small rounded block attached to the fence.
Installation in the new Interpretive Center
With preassembly complete, I discussed the installation with the State Parks project coordinator, Luke Randall. The Kesugi Ken Interpretive center was designed by ECI, an architectural firm in Anchorage.
Unpacking the nine outer disks.
The nine outer designs were positioned and attached. Though I’d been looking at the drawing for months, and though I’d laid everything out on the studio floor at different stages of the process, it was great to see the completed work take shape on the wall.
I hope you’ll get a chance to see it in person one day.
You Know Who
Do you know of a place in your home or business, or a favorite public place that could use some special artwork? View examples of some of my commissioned work. I'd be happy to consider your proposals.