My enthusiasm for the Artistry in Concrete event at The World of Concrete (WOC) increases every year. Clearly, others agree with me as over 14,000 visited the outdoor demonstration this year (2005). I joined the crowds huddled around the artists to observe or to learn about a tool in use. Many of us asked “how-to” questions and brought up difficult problems. There were so many people checking out the Buddy Rhodes countertop exhibit that it was impossible to take a photo. Bob Harris was constantly explaining a variety of staining techniques to different groups. Together, we are witnessing the emergence of concrete as a free-form material offering opportunities for creativity that have been largely unexplored. Artistry in Concrete, a yearly event, is an important step in documenting this extraordinary movement.
Beginning in 2003, and repeated in 2004 and 2005, twelve contractors each year have presented techniques for concrete using stain, color hardeners, grinders, and stencils. They showed special, sometimes newly invented, tools. Interviewing selected artists brought to light many commonalities that I would like to share. I learned that concrete artists represent a variety of talents. Some creatively express themselves with a flare for a new tool or stencil system invention, some innovate with new concrete mix designs, and still others approach their work as multimedia artists. They bring an array of coloring agents, objects to embed in fresh concrete, or they develop layering processes for just the right visual effect. All bring a love of concrete and a spirit of adventure.
Communication among artisans and with visitors is a primary benefit of the Artistry Demo. The demonstrating artists are teachers. Their inspiration is contagious and their practical knowledge beneficial to all of us. Because the work progressed over a several day period, many attendees returned to watch and see the results. Some, like Doug Bannister from the Stamp Store, Oklahoma City, a longtime supporter of this event, embedded glass pieces in wet concrete that was polished several days later. Joe Nasvik, the demo organizer was a facilitator and information resource for the ever-changing audience. I heard several artists say that what they learned from one another was an added bonus. New friendships developed, and that cross-pollination will keep creativity multiplying.
During these interviews, more than one concrete artist told me, “I get bored easily.” That boredom lies at the base of their drive to be creative about their work. Bored with what is at hand, they look for new solutions. Several have a knack for the artistic and are thrilled to treat concrete as a white canvas for their art. On the other side are the tool inventors and stencil makers. They say, “Anyone can be an artist with my products.” Each artist's individual treatment creates one-of-a-kind art pieces for the consumer.
Throughout the country, I hear about people who are surprised with the artful possibilities that decorative concrete presents. And those who offer training are surprised at the people who take their training—airplane pilots, dentists, homeowners with special projects, retirees, and school teachers who want to learn a new skill—even concrete contractors. With public enthusiasm on the rise, decorative contractors keep innovating. Turn the pages here and find ten artists drawn from the preceding years, to learn about their unique creativity.
Remembering his introduction to chemical stain, Antonio Ehrenzweig says, “I did not realize at the time I would use it as an artistic medium, using concrete like canvas.” He was surprised to see the different reactions that chemical stain produced. Soon after, the Leon, Mexico resident developed a unique way to stain using solvent acrylic sealer as a resist material and adding layers of chemical stain. Now he stains not only concrete but marble as well—creating beautiful floors, wall hangings, tiles, and mosaic murals.
Ehrenzweig is influenced by a desert place called “Zona del Silencio.” The natural colors of the area and the prevalent fossils drew him there. Later, living in a coastal city, he was fascinated by sea life and the movement of water. Those two themes—fossils and the movement of water became his artistic language. And concrete, as a medium, opened up new possibilities.
One way that Ehrenzweig works is to begin with a slab that has a white cement topcoat. This serves as his canvas. Working on a three-foot square panel, he starts at the edges with a fairly concentrated ochre chemical stain and works toward the center, gradually diluting the mixture. He says that the techniques are similar to water-color painting. When the slab is dry, he takes a brush with sealer and beginning at the outer edges, flicks the sealer towards the center, creating a pattern. After drying for about 12 hours, the sealer droplets form a resist. Then, he uses a diluted household form of muriatic acid to eat around the sealer or resist, creating a very fine relief to the ochre layer while leaving a white center. He washes it off after 15 minutes. Then the process begins again, this time using deep brown stain. He applies more splashes of sealer, allowing it to dry and follows with another muriatic acid wash. He goes over the slab several times in this manner—first with the ochre, then brown, deep brown and lastly, blue-green stain. The final layer begins at the center with a stronger concentration of acid in the white area, becoming lighter toward the outside. Previous layers show through, and when the work is sealed. the layers appear translucent. “The most critical thing is the fine relief accomplished with the acid etch layers.
Ehrenzweig says that in Mexico there is a strong tradition for tile or marble. People think of concrete mostly for construction and engineering. Acceptance for artistic concrete treatments requires persuasion and the changing of attitudes. Allowing that tradition, Ehrenzweig, who heads the Rotec Art Division in Leon, promotes finely stained concrete tiles. He recently completed a mural of 16 1-foot squares, and finished 6x6-inch concrete tiles for a tabletop. He used sealer, as a resist, to draw fossils and fish creatures and followed with stained layers that reveal the form. Ehrenzweig as an artist continues to search out fresh ideas and new materials. He finds the possibilities when working with concretes irresistible.
A traveler driving along Interstate 25 in Denver is surrounded by the environment of Colorado's recent past—native grasses, regional birds, and Native American teepees—presented in precast sound walls and retaining walls. The work is by Carolyn Braaksma, Braaksma Design, a concrete artist from Denver. Her background that includes fine art, certification as a professional welder, and ten years of construction work all comes together in precast design. It was while working as an ironworker that Braaksma first saw the two-part fiberglass molds used to build fine-surfaced concrete columns. Then she saw the wood grain that remained on concrete surfaces after timber forms were stripped away. “A light bulb turned on as I saw the possibilities for concrete as art,” she says. Braaksma began sculpture—concrete benches and chairs that sold in galleries—and pursuing public art opportunities.
“The good thing about public art versus art in galleries is that you already have the client identified,” says Braaksma. For public art, the “client” is usually a government-funded project that allocates an amount of money to incorporate art. It could be for a public building, an airport, or a highway. The art content is often loosely defined, allowing artists to propose specific work. Braaksma learned about these opportunities while attending an art, architecture, and engineering conference where she heard two public artists speak about submitting a small drawing and winning the work. Braaksma says, “Sometimes that still works, but usually a contract award is based on your past work or your new idea.”
Braaksma's public art includes terrazzo floors in airport concourses and university buildings, and retaining wall and sound wall treatments along major highways. Her fresh ideas are distilled from nature and local history and are site-specific. The Denver, concrete sound walls and retaining wall along I-25 were precast with images drawn from local agriculture and Native American culture. In Scottsdale, Arizona, along the Pima freeway, Braaksma's corridor walls feature oversized lizards and lizard skin texture. Other surfaces include vertical rustication that mimics the outer ribs of the native Saguaro cactus. Twenty-foot-tall lizards formed into their otherwise nondescript surfaces climb bridge piers. The work was initially finished to a standard gray concrete color, Braaksma's choice for the medium. But, since chemical stain is mandated in state specifications, Braaksma completed the walls with a palette of desert colors such as dusty pink, lavender, and green—sage green for the lizards. Using nature as a reference tool with some abstraction is Braaksma's signature style that people have come to recognize.
Braaksma demonstrated her unique process at Artistry in Concrete 2003. Flat marble and aluminum stock were shaped with a water-jet cutter into abstract forms and sea creatures that were embedded in the surface of a fresh concrete slab. Then Tom Graf, Graf Architectural Concrete, Hudson, Wis., ground the concrete slab to reveal the embedded pieces. He used a planetary head diamond polisher, uniformly flattening the surface, and finished the slab by polishing to a 3000-grit shine. Flattening the surface increased the transparency and depth, and gave the feeling of looking into water. The two are teaming again for a project at the new Science-Engineering-Biotechnology building at University of Texas, San Antonio. Braaksma turned to biology and science books for inspiration, choosing a nautilus shell shape for the overall floor configuration and “fossils” in brass and aluminum for the wall panels and the polished concrete floors.
Making a living in public art requires extensive preparation time, fresh ideas, flexibility, and tenacity to find, pursue, and win contracts. Twelve years after beginning her work in the public art arena, Braaksma's work is nationally known; pictures of her projects are in slide banks and in online registries. While committees subjectively evaluate each submittal, and politics and finances often skew results, Braaksma is optimistic about public art. She says, “It's a good time for concrete.”
Lee Gamble brings together new technology and old-world design when she creates and installs stencil patterns. She delves into books on textiles and travels to Europe to photograph historic design elements like stained glass windows, old doors, iron gates, or even doorknobs that become the inspiration for her unique imagery. Her stencil designs for floors, walls, and ceilings are now manufactured by Modello Designs, National City, Calif., in which Gamble is partnered with Melanie Royals, a recognized stencil artisan. Gamble's Creative Surfaces and Designs, Steamboat Springs, Colo., is the company for her contracting work.
Gamble says that stencils (Modellos) lend themselves to curvilinear, complex, and organic shapes, and they offer more flexibility than grinding a design. She demonstrated that complexity at Artistry in Concrete 2005 by installing a 10x10-foot example of stenciling based on designs from books on Japanese kimono patterns. She began by saw-cutting curvilinear sections to define pattern areas and then used dye stains as foundation colors. The slab was allowed to dry overnight. The next day her team placed the first sticky backed stencil and color layer. Next her team troweled a cementitious integrally colored overlay material onto the slab over the stencil. The team amplified or altered the design with overlapping stencils and repeated applications of translucent stain. Etching gel was used to eat back into the concrete. The materials used to color the patterns included chemical stain, solvent and water-based dyes, overlay material, and etching gel. Each section held a different geometric, a curving design, or a floral pattern created with the Modellos. The last step was a toning coat of water-based dye with a yellow-brown tint that evened out the tones and enhanced color, uniting the sections.
Whether commercial or residential, Gamble says, there is a key to custom applications—a room's function, the architecture, a piece of fabric, or even the view. With degrees in history and textile design, and experience as an interior designer, her work is creative as well as thoughtfully rendered. Gamble regularly draws or photographs an area and uses the images to superimpose a design showing a client how a pattern looks installed. To illustrate color, she uses overlay material on Hardiboard and applies stains and/or dyes before beginning the work. When there is agreement, the existing floor or new concrete is prepared for the Modello. She considers her experimentation with color and metallic paint stains and gels to be bridging mediums that create color effects impossible with any single system. Gamble enjoys the coloring process, often using three to four different coloring agents. When she uses the sticky backed stencils, the complex lines of the designs remain crisp. Acrylic sealer completes the work.
Continuing to experiment, Gamble and Royals plan to include “designer packages” for floors, new overlay systems, and continuing pattern development based on old-world motifs. This creative designer has more ideas to come, She says, “I find what works—no rules!”