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From Preview Massachusetts Sept 2006

FOUND & FIRED by Joe Gannon

Junk becomes art when welder Nan Fleming puts the pieces together

The first thing you notice is the smell of wood - wood floors, wood beams, wood tables, and years of heating only with a single wood stove. The next thing you notice is a collection of objects so huge, so overflowing, so endless in the types, varieties, materials and sizes you just know you've entered the lair of a first class hoarder. That is, anyway, until a visitor asks her about the seemingly random collecting of what you honestly want to call junk. But then as Fleming rapidly goes through an incredible roster of what the visitor now realizes is a carefully catalogued collection of found objects, you can only conclude that her brain is a matrix of objects del arte possibly unparalleled outside of a college library computer.

It is the same brain, the same mind's eye, which sees shapes, patterns,and designs in what the rest of us could only call metallic junk in need of carting away. Yet Nan Fleming casts an eye over such junk and from it emerges a giraffe, a goat, a doll, horse, ink well, lamp, table, a dancing Russian cossack or mobile of running antelopes.

"Someone dropped off parts of a piano," she says, walking around the pieces on the floor of a welding workshop built years ago. Fleming walks around the pieces, looking for shapes as if doing a jig-saw puzzle without the original cover. "Then I thought, a horse," she says as she arranges a piece or two and suddenly, there it is: a horse emerges, though it's more Picasso than pinto. "This one was pretty quick," she says, "sometimes a piece will sit unfinished for a year before someone brings me something that finishes it." Indeed, Fleming's vision reminds one of what is most often said about those original works of art- the cave paintings of Europe. It has been reported by those who have seen the 40,000 year-old paintings that the shape of the cave rocks clearly suggest the later painting laid over them. "Well that's good company," Nan says of the suggestion.

But how does a diminutive 5'2" woman, then in her 40s, take up such a primordial art form as the flaming, sparking, screaming art of welding? "After 20 years I went back to finish my degree," she says of a process that began ten years ago. She entered the UMass University Without Walls to get a bachelor's in art education. (The UWW program specializes in helping older students use their life experience to bolster their academic experience.)

"I took a welding class on a whim and within two seconds knew I'd found my medium," she says. "About half the women in the class dropped out right away, it was just too noisy" she says of welding. "But I remember so clearly the first time I heated metal and could bend it - it was like a miracle," Fleming adds, her eyes still lighting up at the memory. Her teacher at the time, Dorrance Hill, also had a great influence on her. "He was a king of a teacher" she says. Although Fleming did not have the background to enter the UMass Art department, Hill saw so much potential in her that he "pushed me through all" those required courses and "got me into the Art department. I lived in the foundry" at UMass "until I graduated." She was still so enthralled about welding that upon graduation she immediately built a workshop "so I could keep going".

One key turning point in her education, the thing she says makes her welded art works unique: "I hadn't taken all the required art classes before entering the foundry", and so she was "unburdened" by experience. "I got very little instruction" from her teachers, which she says "set her free" to follow her own notions of balance and proportion when doing sculpture.

But Nan did not just drop in the foundry unformed. For years before her UWW days she'd worked for Janna Ugoni lighting designs. "That gave me the best background because I'd done years of painting and casting" in lighting designs as production manager there, she says. After graduating from UMass, she retreated to her new studio "and sort of lived there for two years. I mean hours would go by and I'd not notice," she says. Those remain two of the most contented years of her life, she says. Much of her earliest pieces were functional. "One of the first pieces I did was a mailbox. I needed one 'cause it kept getting taken out by the snow plows. " That first piece still stands, undaunted by almost seven winters of abuse. "Then I needed a bench so I made a bench- you know things for myself." But the allure of the new medium, the still on-going miracle of heating metal and manipulating it to her own ends was too strong.Nan left her lighting job and took up welding sculpture full time, which meant selling her pieces to pay the mortgage.

"I'd just turned 50 too, and I wanted a change... Some friends bought a few pieces, then my cousin said we should do a show." That 1999 show Finder's Keepers at Forbes Library with her cousin B. Z. Riely was a success on all levels. "I sold work to friends and strangers. That was bizarre," she says, with a smile. At 50-plus years she'd found her muse, medium and storefront when she entered the Paradise Arts Festival from 2001-2005. "It was a lot of pressure, but I sold dozens of pieces and even developed a following of people who still buy lots of things."

After several years of living on the welding sculptures, Nan took a job as head of the Smith College museum gift shop. "I wanted the sculpture to remain special," she says. "I needed a job" to keep the art safe from the pressures of bill paying.

On a final walk across her property, Fleming muses about her next project: filling her substantial yard with sculptures to make a sort of permanent sculpture garden. "Do you think people would come?" she asks. There is no doubt that they would.


2008 Nan Fleming
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