Conversations about Creativity
Welding – the Art of Permanent Connections
September 5, 2017
Dede Harris, artist, welder, educator, and docent at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, works in a variety of mediums from copper and steel to waxed linen thread and fibers. Dede uses a variety of techniques with these mediums from wire feed and oxygen-acetylene welding to knotless netting and wet felting. Recently published, her book THE CHILDREN’S TREE is a true story about a teacher, the children and a tree in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. Dede is the wife of Holocaust survivor Sam Harris.
Ellen: You have been involved in many areas of art, Dede, so why were you particularly drawn to welding?
Dede: I became fascinated by sculptures that I had first seen at the Scottsdale Arts Festival – steel figures that were colorful and whimsical. They caught my imagination enough for me to announce there and then to my husband Sam (who was with me at the time) that I was going to weld even though I had never tried anything like that before. For some reason, I felt strongly drawn to this extremely creative art form.
Ellen: Was there something in particular that drew you to welding?
Dede: The idea of permanently connecting two pieces of metal fascinated me. Not only did I take joy in connecting metals but connecting to workshops, connecting with collaborators, connecting with galleries etc.
Ellen: Permanent connectivity – I love the fact it was a driving force for you in exploring the art of welding. I do know of the importance to you of permanently connecting to people and to the causes about which you care deeply. So permanent connectivity in art is yet another defining aspect of who you are.
Dede: The concept of being open to connecting has led me to fascinating experiences and unique friendships such as with a Mexican weaver in Las Cruces, New Mexico and a monk living on top of a mountain in Tonto National Forest. It has driven me to learn continually, new skills from working with steel and copper to felting, knotless netting and so much more.
Ellen: You have the courage, Dede, to take chances each time you try a new technique. In fact, becoming a welder in its self was taking a chance.
Dede: I later realized that being open not only to welding but to taking chances and making it okay to make mistakes were characteristics that informed my abilities to express myself creatively. So welding was an art form that came easily to me because I love to play and I value my connections.
Ellen: And you chose to play with fire or should I rather say, work with fire. Did the fact that you were only inches away from the flames frighten you at all?
Dede: Absolutely, but my desire to learn was stronger than my fear. I did not let fear impede what I so strongly wanted to do. That determination to learn to weld seemed to push down my fear of playing with fire and I focused solely on what I needed to learn and defied my own fears and the cautionary warnings of others.
Ellen: By learning to weld, you discovered an additional strength within yourself: you recognized that you actually had the ability to play with fire. How constant was your strength to face fire or did you waver at times?
Dede: That strength of the desire to learn to weld continued to grow as I learned that I had the ability to produce art forms. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. To me, there was no such thing as a mistake. It was an opportunity to problem solve, while continuing to learn. My focus was on learning. I loved that feeling of efficacy and the fact that I could control a welding environment that has intrinsically dangerous aspects to it. It gave me the strength to learn more and more. Once in a while, my self-doubt would push through. What was I doing? Was it really dangerous? For several months on the way to class, I would counteract my fear by repeatedly telling myself that someday I would get comfortable enough to go from machine to machine in the same way as let’s say, a mechanic in a garage does.
Ellen: So more than one machine would be needed on the road to completing an artwork?
Dede: Generally, yes. I loved both the idea of efficiently moving from one machine to another and fell in love with the process of going from oxy/acetylene gas to a wire feeder depending on the need of the piece. I began to use a variety of skills on one art form. For me, this was very exciting. The more comfortable I felt with the process, the more excited I became and the more possibilities I saw. Often, the piece would start out as one image that wasn’t quite working and because of my concentration on problem solving and serendipity (there is a lot of serendipity in what I do) the piece would become a different image.
Ellen: Such a good example Dede, of malleability – how an idea can become so much more than before – much more than the original creative spark! There isn’t only one way of creating art.
Dede: That is right, Ellen. I learned that if one approach didn’t work, I would try another. I learned that there is no single right way to do anything. What also attracts me to this art form is the need to be open to ideas and to attempting new techniques or combining many. I learned to be open to chance.
Ellen: How did you go about setting up your welding studio? How did you choose the name for the studio? There is significance to the name you chose for your studio. Right?
Dede: Once I decided that I needed my own studio, my husband Sam, a child survivor of the Holocaust was more than happy to work with me to construct it. Yes, I decided the name of the studio should be the Rzeznik Studio, acknowledging Sam’s family who perished in the Holocaust and never had any opportunities to pursue their own aspirations. That sign hangs at the entrance of the studio.
Ellen: What about he quotes on the wall of your studio?
Dede: These quotes are by many powerful and wise thinkers who have inspired me. I honored them by having their thoughts burned into wooden plaques. Some of the plaques read…
Ellen: Your studio is not within the interior of your house so how weatherproof is it – particularly, for example, against withstanding the Chicago winds?
Dede: My studio at the back of our garage is outside because the fumes from welding are toxic. The studio has a roof so I can work through most kinds of weather providing the Chicago winds don’t extinguish the flame. When it does however, I turn to other forms of work such as drilling, plasma cutting, sanding, bending etc.
Ellen: What are the precautions you take when you weld and have there ever been any accidents?
Dede: I have never had an accident, thank goodness. I wear heavy gloves and a green non-flammable welding coat and also a helmet. I wear a hat besides the helmet to protect my hair. I am quite a sight!
Ellen: And quite a different sight when you clean up! You connect with seeming ease to the many different aspects of your life.
Dede: Thank you, Ellen. I think I do.
Ellen: But now back to you at work. Your attire alone tells many a story.
Dede: My original coat is filled with holes because sparks – that always become airborne – have flown into my coat from time to time. I will never get rid of that coat. It is my war buddy. It certainly doesn’t provide complete protection any longer so now I wear another newer coat but I keep that first one because of the memories it stores for me. I wear leather boots that also have some holes from sparks. In other words, in order to protect myself when I weld, I keep totally covered. However, welding in this get up is very hot in the summer. Yet, when I am in my creative mode, I don’t feel the heat until I stop welding and my attention turns from creating back to ordinary life.
Ellen: So your coat is a map of your own sparks of creativity?
Dede: That’s very true, Ellen. Therefore, I will never throw away my other welding coats as well – however many holes they accumulate – because together, we have waged many a battle.
Ellen: Dede’s Coats of Many Battles.
Dede: And my leather boots are reminders of many battles, too. I have become pretty used to stamping heavily so the sparks that have landed don’t burn through the leather entirely but still, I am left with a collection of holes – memories.
Ellen: Many of your welded sculptures are large, bold and marvelously playful. Then there are those that are small. How do you decide what to create or does it just happen?
Dede: I do a whole range of sizes and subjects from abstract garden light posts to tall, non-representational garden sculptures, insects, deer, and so on.
Deciding can sometimes be a problem. I have so many ideas that it is never a question of finding subject matter – I have so many thoughts about and images of what I want to create – it boils down to the problem of selection. Which idea do I choose to pursue? Another deciding factor is how readily available is the material I need to carry out the idea. So sometimes, the deciding factor with regard to the next project I pursue is the material available. The material often sparks the art. There is a certain amount of serendipity involved in the selection of the idea.
Then there is the strength of an idea, that is, how much does it attract me and then, on the other hand, there is my realistic approach to an idea, that is, how much time do I actually have to work and that begs the question: do I have the necessary material needed to create it? There are so many variables. I love the questions you are asking me, Ellen, because not only are you making me think clearly about my creative process, but you are also validating it.
Ellen: Thank you, Dede. So often we just do creatively what we are drawn to do without thinking about what and why we do. We just do.
Dede: Often, I consciously permit my intuition to lead the way. Ellen, I want to say, there is something emotionally healing through clarification that you bring to this interview process.
Ellen. Thank you again! So Dede, where do you find the various parts, large and small, for building the total welded art sculptures? You spend a lot of time rummaging through garbage, don’t you?
Dede: Sometimes, I already have a metal piece in my garage that is just waiting for me to recognize its value by often, unexpectedly, sparking an idea. Other times, I might be wandering through a factory junk yard and find a piece of metal that stirs my imagination. I generally make sure that the metal is magnetic and so I walk through junkyards with a magnet in my hand. One needs a magnet to attract steel that can easily connect to other pieces of steel although it is possible to weld other types of metal. I am always on the lookout subconsciously for interesting shapes. Something could be simply lying on the street flattened by a vehicle. Sometimes, I combine metals with other media. I have even stopped a gardener’s truck because of some burlap covering the vegetation in it because that burlap happened to be something I was looking for. I wonder what the all the gardeners who happened to be in that truck, thought about my enthusiasm for their worn burlap?
Ellen: Indeed that burlap had value – you needed it for your narrative sculpture, Auschwitz: Horror & Defiance – right?
Dede: Yes, I needed it to symbolize the cover-up of Auschwitz and the entire Nazi killing machine. Also, the prisoners slept on burlap-covered straw in the bunkers. This sculpture was one of three pieces for the documentary film Eric Cosh and you produced so beautifully: A HOLOCAUST TRILOGY: A Narrative Art Project.
Ellen: Eric and I were so moved by your narrative art project – the three sculptures and the accompanying booklets – that we knew it was essential to capture the experience in film.
Dede: Well, so many people have been so moved by that movie, too.
Ellen: And now there is your recently published, very moving, children’s book: THE CHILDREN’S TREE OF TEREZIN with the beautiful art of Sara Akerlund.
Dede: My commitment to educating about that terrible time in history is because my husband Sam is a Holocaust survivor – a child survivor. So my art deals at times with tragic subjects.
Ellen: And other times, your art is playful, really amusing and joyful.
Dede: I very much enjoy whimsy and humor as well. The subject dictates the moods of the work to be created and the materials needed. For example, I purchased a jacket that I was looking forward to wearing but had not yet found the right opportunity. I liked the dyed gauze fabric. I never got to wear it because I suddenly realized that the gauze was ideal for a sculpture on which I was working. I ripped the jacket and stretched it across part of this sculpture. It turned out to be the perfect use of this jacket. I am not sorry that I bought it and then used it for my sculpture.
Ellen: You probably didn’t even ask yourself whether the jacket would look better on you than on the sculpture because a visual possibility simply beckoned to you; it felt right and you acted.
Dede: I find possibilities everywhere. I watch out for possibilities and love to problem solve. I love to use the skills I have and also am excited when I acquire new ones. I also love brainstorming.
Ellen: You behold something and in your imagination, it transforms into a different form. Something cast away and no longer needed by an owner, becomes to you, a rejection with potential. A discarded scrap piece of metal or fabric, string or ornamentation for example, can, in your eyes, be brimming with possibilities. So Dede, do you actually feel a surge of creative excitement when you enter what many people would regard simply as garbage dumps?
Dede: Yes, indeed! From discarded garbage, I can make welded sculptural works that are aesthetically pleasing. There is also so much serendipity involved – it’s a strange space one inhabits while being involved in this creative process.
Ellen: And even when you are down in the dumps searching for metal objects with artistic welding potential, you are not in the dumps at all, but really, emotionally elevated.
Dede: Yes, Ellen! I feel almost as if I am in a different state of consciousness as I seek a particular piece I need. I feel this way in many of the venues in which I go hunting. I needed a battered sail canvas for a sculpture I was working on and found it in a Minnesota boathouse. Another time, I found an oilcan at the back of a factory and asked a forklift driver to smash the can with his forklift. Then I looked at the folds in the can and a football player stared back at me. All it needed was a little enhancing. Another example of the art I have created from found parts is a ten-foot tall giraffe using automobile mufflers.
Ellen: Even your kitchen gives you ideas for welding
Dede: Once, I disciplined myself to make a sculpture entirely out of kitchen parts and did so. I titled it Kitchen Meddler. Unfortunately for me, more and more of these dumps are being closed to the public because of the danger of being hurt. Yet for me, each dump is a Garden of Eden – a paradise. If I am lucky, the dump will have a shopping cart that I really need. I wear gloves as I rummage through the dumps because it easy to scratch or cut myself. Plus there is rust on the metal – a danger – but then, I actually often look for rusty metal so I can use it in order to get an aging patina look.
Ellen: And presumably, not only are you thinking of subject matter but also the form and shape of the sculpture?
Dede: I think about many relevant areas at the same time: balance, color, material, etc. and the story I want to tell. I also think about the artistic techniques I can employ to tell the story like the Red Cross in my Terezin sculpture. I incorporated in it a process called felting – a method that only skims the surface of the cloth because I wanted to symbolize the fact that the Red Cross system was frayed and faulty and they only skimmed the surface when they investigated the treatment of the prisoners at that camp.
Ellen: Your work has been exhibited in many galleries nationally.
Dede: Within a year of my starting to weld, I was in galleries. I simply jumped in and began to swim. I am also in many private collections. It is thrilling to see my art in galleries. Here is an example: Once, I went to a big art fair in Highland Park, Illinois. Near by the fair was a gallery that had just accepted my sculptures a few days earlier. When I passed its window, I was thrilled to see my five large sculptures taking up the entire window.
My art has been shown in galleries from Scottsdale to Provincetown and from Santa Fe and Sedona to Chicago. It has always been a thrill to be received by the excited representative of a gallery. I have never gone the traditional way of sending photos of my art and waiting impatiently for a reply. I just don’t have that kind of patience. I was not shy about showing my work, partly because I almost always got a positive response after having arrived without an appointment but bringing along one or two of my pieces. And most times, they were accepted on the spot. One gallery owner said to me, “I will take as many pieces as you have. Just drop them off”. And so I did. My trailer filled with my large and small sculptures would arrive at this gallery and I would unload. How fortunate I have been in regard to my untraditional marketing strategy.
Ellen: What about your education, Dede? Was it largely focused on the arts or did that happen at a later point?
Dede: I first studied Occupational Therapy because I was very drawn to helping people in a creative way and would have worked with patients to achieve creatively, their maximum potential. Also in this profession, you have to think creatively. Although due to other considerations, I changed majors and graduated in elementary education, to this day I know I would have flourished in Occupational Therapy. I would have collaborated with clients to create despite difficulties.
Ellen: You have produced many art works collaboratively as well. Tell us about these collaborations. You seem to glide so easily between your individual productions and the collaborative ones. You have this intrinsic ability to be both a solo artist and a collaborative one as well:
Dede: I thoroughly enjoy my collaborations. For me, what is important is the doing – the creative process gives me pleasure whether I am working alone or together with others. I have collaborated with Ingrid Brown and Bobbi Loevy. I have also collaborated with my husband Sam.
Ellen: What advice would you like to give to others who want to explore their artistic potential?
Dede: There are no rights or wrongs. You just do it without reservation. Cling to an idea and sharpen it. Help it fly and fly with it. Any fear should be sidelined. It is the doing that is important regardless of the outcome. Feel good about your courage and endorse yourself for the effort, not the result.