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
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.
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
"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
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.