Last March, Jason Lanka was hired to create a sculpture program for the fine arts department at Sheridan College. The program, which started full time in August, offers a wide array of new courses centered on sculpture.
As Lanka began developing the program, the first person he turned to in the college faculty was Carl Schiner, the welding instructor. What does a welder know about a fine arts program?
According to Lanka, everything.
“You can make fine art out of any material and any process,” he said. “We have artists using computer technology, woodwork, metal sculpture, welding and other industrial techniques to create and the only difference is their intention behind the creation and it becomes art.”
Lanka says industrial arts bridge the gap between learning a skill of functionality and taking those techniques to create something personal. While Schiner might be thought of as someone who makes practical items for use, he sees the art in his work as much as Lanka.
Eight years ago Schiner worked in conjunction with a newly proposed art show to bring a “Welding Rodeo” to Sheridan, a competition in which welders collected recycled pieces from the scrap yard and transformed them into a piece of art.
“It’s like a busman’s holiday for a lot of guys who work as welders,” Schiner said. “They see stuff in the scrap yard and as a hobby they take gears, balls and pieces of cable and turn it into landscapes and pictures.”
While the welding rodeo will not be held this year, Lanka sees deep roots of the art throughout Sheridan remaining.
“What we’re doing is reinforcing things which are already popular in Sheridan, so if you see a metal sculpture in the downtown sculpture walk you can now come to the college and learn how to create that,” he said. “There are several very successful individuals in the community like Mike Flanagan in Dayton and Tom Balding — who makes art out of bits and spurs — that are already using these techniques.”
Beyond sculptures developed for the sole purpose of art, elements of all blacksmith, woodwork and other function-centered creations can require an artistic eye. From large architectural designs like handrails and benches to smaller items like fireplace pokers and wooden bowls, the details of the pieces and the care the creator takes in adding them can make everyday items a true work of art.
Just as welders are not the only ones turning the practices of their industry into art, college-aged students are not the only ones keeping the art form alive.
“There are a lot of retired people that just want to come back and play in my creative metal class,” Schiner said. “A few years ago I even had a lady who had never struck metal in her life but she wanted to make a plant hanger out of a tricycle. We bent it all up for her and it came out pretty cool.”
Schiner says his classes are “wide open to interpretation,” so much so that one student even makes elk, deer and cow skulls through welding.
And this, according to Lanka, is the beginning stage of famous original art like Balding’s.
“What I teach and what Carl teaches can be combined to make Tom Balding’s work, a fine piece of art that functions as both purpose and craft,” he said.
There is another thing the art teacher and the industry teacher agree upon — anyone can make art.
“You just have to conquer your fear of working with your hands, jump in and start playing,” Schiner said. “We teach the basics like how to swing a hammer and the aspects of safety but once you get comfortable, you’re given a platform to go off in any direction you want. It really is a lot of fun.”
Lanka added that no appointment is needed to stop by the school for a visit.
“Come by, talk to the students, and look at the work that’s constantly being exhibited in the Whitney building or throughout the art department,” he said.
“Our campus is always open to tourists and community members alike, and you’re sure to see something unique.”