“Through Your Spotting Scope”
A steel wall mural at the K’esugi Ken Interpretive Center in Denali State Park
Through Your Spotting Scope is the first Alaska Percent for Art Program commission for an Alaska State Park. It’s in the K’esugi Ken Interpretive Center which is on a knoll at the foot of Curry Ridge in Denali State Park, mile 135.4 Parks Highway, just north of the Denali South Viewpoint.
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 colored, 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 colored, 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.
I love braided rivers and mountains look great in engraved steel. My initial idea was to do a landscape with Denali, the foothills and the Chulitna River.
I use tracing paper a good deal when I’m working on designs. It gives me a chance to quickly reuse elements that are working, and to do more spontaneous drawing with the original as a direct reference. Here with more refining and shading.
The proposal was for a new interpretive center. The idea came to me to add details of animals who live in Denali State Park around the perimeter.
Here, I’ve added more detail on the glacier and river.
At some point I decided to include references to the animals that live in Denali State Park. I decided to add disks with animal tracks in the areas of the landscape they frequented.
As the design continued to evolve with the circular pictures of the animals, the title “Through a Spotting Scope” came to me. Later I changed it to “Through Your Spotting Scope.”
After I received the commission, there was feedback from the art committee to add cultural elements. I added the berry picker, hiker, and a float plane.
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.
As part of my proposal, I superimposed the design onto the Sketchup drawing of the building which was provided by the project architectural firm, ECI of Anchorage.
The view from Kesugi Ridge above the Interpretive Center.
Enlarging the Drawings
The first step in enlarging the designs, was to cut out all the blanks for the perimeter details. I made rough paper patterns and cut around them with a plasma cutter.
After the initial enlarging, I spent a good bit of time refining each drawing.
Each design was enlarged onto a 12 gauge steel blank using an Artograph Inspire 800 projector connected to my computer.
The blanks are held in place for drawing with magnets that “turn on and off.”
With the overall design open in a SketchUp window and zoomed to the correct size, I could pan around to orient each drawing onto its blank for enlarging.
Refining the braided river. The landscape measures about 6′ x 8′ and consists of three sections.
This image shows all the drawings complete and the pieces laid out on the floor. The overhanging parts of the detail pictures still need to be trimmed with a plasma cutter. I did this after the engraving was complete.
Engraving the Drawings
The engraving is done using a variety of flexible shaft tools ranging from small Foredom grinders to large, 3-phase grinders made by Suhner.
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.
Once the drawings are engraved into the steel, the protruding edges are trimmed to the drawing and it’s time to make the patterns for the frame and begin grinding and heat coloring.
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 colors.
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.
With all the perimeter designs ground and colored, it was time to begin on the central landscape which is made in three layers.
All set up and ready to begin grinding. You can see the dust collector hose which is also on an articulated arm.
I use a large propane torch for coloring the steel. This piece is large enough, 3′ x 8′, that I had to “extrude” the color, working from one end to the other. With smaller pieces, I can heat the whole piece evenly until I get the desired temperature and color.
Here is the foreground panel after the first green heat.
Making the Frame
I began by laying out stiff paper around the edges and then scribing a border around the artwork for the reclaimed, Douglas fir 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
You can also read more about how I got started making metal wall art on this page.