Stainless Stones

Journey north of Scotland, round the tip of Cape Wrath (its name from the Old Norse hverfa, "to disappear"), across the treacherous race of the Pentland Firth to the wind-bared Orkney Isles, and there you'll find the ruins of Skara Brae and Maes Howe, the Stones of Stennis, the Broch of Gurness, the Ring of Brodgar. Ruins before the Vikings reached them, these stacks of old stones bear runic graffiti, Hakon alone bore the treasure out of this mound: the thoughts seem ancient now, while the stones of these dwellings, these barrows, rings, and brochs, rise in an ageless, unmistakeable pattern.

"This stone here," explains sculptor Stephen Porter, hunched over a picture book in his lap, "and this stone—" His finger traces a doorpost and lintel in a house at Skara Brae. "That's a sculpture."

Wind down a country road, past a white church, its yard full of gravestones, through a clot of tract houses, over a tumbling creek: at the bend, in a hollow tucked almost out of sight beneath a cornfield and a wooded curve of mountain, you'll find a white farmhouse with skylights in the addition. On the grass stand ranks of bold, heavy sculptures, as talismanic in their way as the far Orkney's Standing Stones.

But anticipation is as wary as inspiration.

These turn out not to be the sculptures I've come to see, these massive bronze and iron monuments, aged with rust or a skin of moss, ranked like dancers on the lawn, abstracts full of personality. Porter made these before his trip to the Isles. He takes my coat and ushers me into the sun-filled addition. There, like lines of sunlight suddenly made solid and lifted off the floor, stand his newest sculptures, the ones inspired by the megalithic monuments of the Orkneys. Stainless steel, they shine, all angles, arcs, and rigid arms, as unlike the husky earthiness of stones as objects can be.

He sees my puzzlement, as I look from the pictures of old stones in the book to the bright steel crowding the room. "These are beautiful sculptures," he says of the stones, "but I can't make them. I can't copy someone else's sculpture. I can like it and want to make it, but I can't. I can't copy the Mona Lisa. It's like that."

He pages slowly past photos of the massive standing stones, and turns back to the jumbled barrow walls of Maeshowe. "I didn't go there and look at this and say, All right, there's a sculpture and there's a sculpture . . ." A mischievous look crinkles his eyes. "At least I didn't then. I might if I go back." He drops his eyes back to the book, musing on the images. "I went and just looked in general. I just looked as much as I could."

He slips a computer drawing from a manila folder: It's a picture of the sculpture standing across the room from us, rendered in computer 3-D against a virtual parquet floor and a virtual pale-green wall. It's titled Series 9, number 4. "This one is obviously stones," Porter says. "Here's the vertical slab," he traces the line of sculpture and the corresponding line at Maeshowe, "and here are the stones." He looks up as if surprised by a stray thought. "At least it's obvious to me," he adds, and waits to see if I'll agree.

The phone rings and I wander the room, circling the stainless steel group. Some of the pieces are small and sinuous, others blocky. Some seem contained, others project into space. On the phone Porter is describing these very works to a gallery, or a client. A van pulls up outside: the chimney sweeps Porter had been expecting, and he shifts from one interruption to the next. I examine the art on the walls—framed black-and-whites of a barn foundation, a rock wall with a petroglyph, a set of stone steps—and on the tables: clay angels and antique silver trinkets. Behind me the steel sculptures seem to shimmer and move.

In an airy attic space cluttered with computer gear and bright from skylights, while the chimney sweeps knock and batter somewhere overhead, Porter clicks on a whirring MacIntosh machine and calls up a drawing.

"This is the one downstairs," he says, connecting this draftsman-like sketch with the gleaming steel of Series 9, number 4. "I do the sculpture as a wire-frame drawing initially, then I tell the computer what surface I want to put on it and where the lights are going to shine on it when I bring it into the "room,' and then the computer renders it in 3-D. It's like the computer is looking at it, the computer screen is a window onto the sculpture."

He draws a sculpture as I watch, first setting up a green base grid, then a red vertical grid. He draws a square on the vertical plane then "extrudes" it, stretching it until it measures 12 inches wide. With six more clicks he draws a profile of a curving stalk. "Now I'll extrude that 12 inches and there's that shape." He adds another rectangle. "Then I'll draw another grid, move out on it and get bigger, taller. I wanted this sculpture taller." He turns the virtual steel so that he can look "directly at it," and draws another profile. "There's the whole thing."

Inspiration in under five minutes?

Porter looks at me, puzzled. "It's the same one I've done before, the one downstairs . . . But no, sometimes the process doesn't take very long. I couldn't draw that fast on paper, not in 3-D. On paper I couldn't keep track of all these lines, but here I can keep turning it around and around. I can make it some other color, yellow or red." The program is a commercial one meant for graphic designers and old enough now that the maker no longer supports it, but Porter prefers it to newer applications. He uses it in the classes he teaches on Modelling, Rendering, and Animation, classes in which each of the 14 students, he says, hopes ultimately to go out to California and work for Industrial Light and Magic. "No other application can render these as fast," Porter explains. "All the programs are different—this one happens to be perfect for my use.

"And I can combine it with other things. Movies—" he clicks on a box and the virtual version of Series 9, number 4 begins turning on its pedestal; the lights change, the shadows move.

I recognize it now, with its shining skin on, the steel planes containing and reflecting imaginary light. We stare at the change of form and pattern on the screen. "If you have this," I ask, thinking back to Industrial Light and Magic's special effects, "why do you build them?"

Porter clicks the screen blank. "Building is what it's all about," he smiles, as if letting me in on a secret. "The movies are fun, they're playing around. They're good for presentations. But what I'm really interested in is making."

On the way to the workshop Porter chats with the chimney sweeps. The chimney in the back—it gets a little hot every now and then. I wander alone into the dark shop: a lair, a den of metal-working. Chains hang from a pulley in the ceiling. Coveralls and a helmet lie among the tools scattered about. An air compressor, a paint sprayer, a jig saw. Various clamps. A radial saw. Plywood and wood scraps, carpet scraps, nails. Sheafs of bright steel sheets. A shelf of little models.

The river and the trees peek through the shop windows. On the grass the massive bronzes look over their shoulders at the clothesline.

"When I was an undergraduate I always liked to make things," Porter says. He worked in wood in the early "70s, when he first became a professor at Penn State, then switched to bronze before it became too expensive. He scuffs the dirty floor. "All this black dirt is from polishing," he says. He pulls out a sheet of steel. "This is what the material looks like. It's an eighth of an inch thick." Looking at his computer's renditions, he draws cardboard patterns by hand ("I use a compass," he says. "I don't need measured drawings."), then cuts out the steel, bends it, welds it, grinds the weld, and polishes it. "I go through eight steps to polish it," he says. "It's very messy, but they end up very shiny."

He slips the sheet of steel back into the rack. It's a small sheet and rather irregular—as are all the rest in the stack. Porter acknowledges he's almost out of stock. "The price per pound goes down the more you order. Last year I had a commission, so I ordered a little extra. Right now I can make things from the stuff left over, but smaller ones are harder than big ones. They take longer."

He crosses to the shelf in the corner and picks out a little model. "This is what I used to do before I had a computer," he explains. "I'd make a model first. Recognize this one? "The Lipsticks,' they call it. It's on College Avenue near the pizza place." He selects another from the shelf, a more angular, arcing design. "This one is in front of The Towers."

"Did you do the sculpture in Kern Building?" I ask.

"Kern? No, that was a student of mine, Sam Gardiner. He has several pieces around town. He did them as part of his degree work here, then went around and peddled them."

"I work in Kern," I said, "and I never noticed that sculpture until one day I tried to take a shortcut to the stairs and banged my head."

Porter's smile broadens. "It's a nice sculpture," he says softly.

"I don't think of it as nice. I think of it as mechanical and mean."

"Yes, it is mechanical." He places the model back on the shelf. "It's a good sculpture is what I meant."

On the way down the drive I glimpse again the ring of bronze and iron dancers in the grass. In their arcs and lines and angles they don't evoke the Maeshowe ruins, like the shiny stainless sculptures inside the house, and I know now they were not inspired by the Standing Stones. And yet they seem, still, in some way responses to the same human impulse: that worshipful act of making.

Stephen Porter is professor of art in the School of Visual Arts, College of Arts and Architecture, 210 Patterson Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-9698; sxp14@psu.edu; www.personal.psu.edu/sxp14/.

Last Updated May 01, 1998