Picking up the torch 20 years later

From the moment Debra Singleton picked up a cutting torch to weld a piece of sheet metal, she knew that creating sculptures was her passion. An art lover, once married to a sculptor, she had never tried sculpting herself.

“I have always sketched and painted, and I may have mentioned to my husband once, long ago, when I was very young, that I might want to try sculpting, but he said ‘Oh no, welding is way too dangerous’ and that was the end of that,” Ms. Singleton recalled.

Back in those days, she owned and managed a bakery and café, Desert Desserts, in Santa Fe, N.M. She spent her days whipping up all-natural breads, pies and pastries, and although it was demanding physically, she enjoyed the work, particularly creating her own recipes. After moving back east into an apartment above a barn on her sister’s property in Wilton, she happened to flip through a Silvermine Arts Center course catalog in January 2012, and decided, out of the blue, to take a sculpture class.

“I remember saying to my sister, ‘I think I’ll take a sculpture class,’ and she asked, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ and I said, ‘Yes, it probably is,’ but in hindsight, it was probably something I had always wanted to do and just didn’t know it,” she explained.

Silvermine Arts Center offered prospective students the chance to spend a day welding before enrolling in the course to see if they liked it, but Ms. Singleton skipped that session and instead jumped right into the class. On the first day she found herself surrounded by tattoo-sporting men; she was the only woman, and the only student without prior experience. Several minutes later, another woman walked in; she had no prior experience either, and she and Ms. Singleton became fast friends.

Ms. Singleton credits her instructor, Robert Perucci, with helping her overcome any hesitation about the class and for inspiring her. For her first project, she chose to sculpt an egret.

“I take my dog walking along the Saugatuck River and I love watching the egrets there. I had a tiny picture of an egret from the cover of a Metropolitan Museum of Art flyer, so I brought that into class. I told Bob I wanted to make the egret big, larger than life-size, and asked him if he thought I was capable of attempting something like this. He said, ‘Go for it’, so I did.”

With his guidance, she went to a metal yard company in Bridgeport and ordered a large piece of sheet metal and the rebar she would need for her project. Then back in the studio, she got to work on her egret, wearing protective gear: a helmet with a visor, work boots and gloves.

“I had to cut the metal with a blowtorch, which is quite dangerous, but that’s part of the fun of it,” she said, “and then use all my strength to bend the metal the way I wanted it. Rebar is really hard to bend. Sometimes I heat it to bend it, and other times I have to put it in a vise and physically bend it. And I have to cut each piece to fit.”

She first built the armature, or interior framework, and then wrapped it with sheet metal. When she finished her egret, which stood just over four feet high and weighed over 200 pounds, her friend and fellow classmate convinced her to enter it into Silvermine Arts Center’s 2012 summer student exhibition.

“By then, I had already taken it home and set it up in our yard,” said Ms. Singleton, “so I had to hire someone with a truck to bring it back to the center.”

About a week later she received a call from the school asking her if she was planning to attend the opening of the student show.

“It turns out I had won an award for my egret,” she explained even now still a bit amused that her very first effort would win an award. “They give two prizes in sculpture — First Prize and Honorable Mention, and I won Honorable Mention.”

Since then, Ms. Singleton has sculpted a cow, a dog with its hindquarters up as if at play, and a sheep, head down, grazing. Her love of animals and nature inspires her, but she works from memory rather than a photograph of the animal she is sculpting.

“Working from a photograph messes me up because I am always looking at the picture and trying to follow it exactly. So I prefer to work from a picture in my mind. I start with a photograph, but then I put it aside, once I have the image in my head,” she said.

As she welded the armature for her next project, her cow, she became intrigued with the pattern created by the rebar.

“Once I finished the outline of the cow, and started filling in certain angles, I decided I didn’t want to cover it up. But it needed some dimension so I started adding more rebar. The challenge was knowing when to stop, because working in a small space, it was hard to step back.”

After she finished, her husband came by and gave her a rare compliment, telling her, “You nailed that cow.”

Her current project is a pair of crows, inspired by a family of crows nesting in her backyard. “Crows mate for life,” she explained. “The pair I have been watching had babies, so at one point there were six. Now there are just four, but they come every day to the bird feeder and I have had the chance to study them.”

As with her other sculptures, her pair of crows is larger than life-size. “I can’t seem to work small,” she said with a laugh, “and I haven’t figured out how I am going to mount them. I’d like to put them up in a tree, but because they are so big, I am worried they might be too heavy for a branch.”

Ms. Singleton emerges from her four-hour sculpting class, which she attends religiously every Wednesday morning, looking like a chimney sweep with arms, back and shoulders aching, but that does not deter her.

“Sculpting is my passion. I have become obsessed with it. The class starts at 9:30 a.m., and when Bob will come by to say it’s time to clean up, I can’t believe that four hours have gone by.  My only regret is that I didn’t start sculpting 20 years ago.”