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Mark Noll works on a butterfly sculpture in his home near Dallas. Along with his wife, Wendy, and son, Ethan, Noll has been producing copper and aluminum sculptures for about three years. One of his guitar sculptures was purchased by guitarist Slash's wife for the couple's anniversary.
November 22, 2011
DALLAS -- Mark Noll lines up a chisel over a dark red line drawn on a piece of copper foil and strikes it with a mallet.
He quickly moves to the next line and hits the chisel again. A few dozen strikes and the copper foil -- which is cut into a butterfly shape -- begins to curl.
An unsculpted cutout of a butterfly.
"It looks like a tangled mess at this point, but you will see how it works out," he said.
Next, he turns the copper butterfly upside down over a small anvil and with a hammer gently softens the creases made by the chisel, then turns it back over to examine his handiwork.
As promised, the curvature of the wings is beginning to resemble a real butterfly.
Over the last three years, Noll -- along with his wife, Wendy, and son, Ethan -- has perfected the technique of turning flat pieces of copper and aluminum into butterflies, birds, fish, lizards and even guitars with a surprising amount of realism. Working under the name Nature Art Studios, the Dallas family sells its art work and takes custom orders from its website, www.etsy.com/shop/natureartstudio.
With the endless reach of the Internet, Noll has sold sculptures to people all over the world. He's even had one of his guitar pieces end up in former Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash's home studio. It was an anniversary gift from Slash's wife, Perla Hudson.
Noll uses a mallet and chisel, among other tools, to give form to the flat copper.
"You just don't know who is going to order something," Noll said.
Noll grew up in Buzzards Bay, Mass., where he attended college wanting to become a marine biologist. His pursuit of that vocation was derailed when the research vessel he was to be an intern on kept breaking down. He didn't abandon the sea altogether, though. To help pay bills during college, Noll began making sculptures of marine mammals to sell in gift shops.
After college, he and Wendy married and moved to Oregon. Noll began a career and, for a time, left art behind.
The drive to create never left completely. Three years ago, looking for a creative outlet, Noll turned to metal sculpture.
Quick heating with a blowtorch gives the copper an iridescent sheen.
Noll's artist studio is stocked with unexpected tools. The book case where Noll keeps his tools looks like it belongs in an auto body repair shop. He has rubber mallets -- the kind used to pound out dents in cars -- chisels, metal snips, and a variety of pliers, all used to bend and shape sheets of copper, aluminum and recycled copper into art.
Noll began making the sculptures using the common practice of pounding pieces of metal into wooden blocks carved into the desired shape.
"It just really wasn't working," he said. "So shortly after that, we started experimenting with other techniques and found that just doing it on a mat we could free shape it and it gives you a little more freedom."
For his more popular creations, such as butterflies, the process seems second nature now. After basic shaping with a chisel and hammer, Noll uses pliers to add more subtle details to the butterfly.
A shot of patina etches the surface of the hot copper, giving it a marbled coloring.
"This is the part that's going to determine how good it's going to look," Noll said as he put the finishing touches on his latest creation. "We are basically trying to shape it to give it a little more three-dimensional shape."
The most dramatic transformation happens in the final stages, however.
Taking the sculpture to the garage, Noll places it on a wire rack and heats it with a propane torch just until it begins to change color. Within seconds, the butterfly begins to take on a iridescent glow.
Lastly, Noll applies a slightly acidic patina, which will etch the surface of the copper and add pigments to give the finished piece a marbled, light turquoise hue.
Butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds and fish are among the most popular in Noll's repertoire. Depending on the sculpture, Noll will use different copper sheets of varying thickness. For fish, he uses a more substantial sheet of copper -- and banishes himself to the garage when it is time to hammer out the curves because of the noise.
Noll found that employing glass taxidermy eyes adds a realistic look to his sculptures.
Wendy, however, offers a more delicate art to combine with her husband's metal work: calligraphy.
In experimenting with using permanent markers and applying heat, the Nolls discovered the chemicals in the ink bond to the surface of the copper, creating a glossy finish.
The technique is perfect for making signs, such as customer orders reading "Ted's Workshop" or hearts with romantic messages.
"It's just something we discovered playing around," Mark Noll said.
The Nolls plan to continue experimenting with their techniques, or with new ways of making art.
Now, Mark and Ethan, a senior at Dallas High School, are collaborating for the first time. Ethan has been building guitars for a few years and the pair thought it would be fun to create one combining both of their skills. Ethan is designing and building an electric guitar out of solid mahogany. Once the body is finished, Mark plans to create a decorative copper cover plate.
"He's good at copper," Ethan said of his father. "I've got guitar-making experience, so we thought why not put them together?"