The goal for every artists who builds an arts based business is to work at the intersection of creative inspiration and relevance. Metalsmith Bill Sorich is a perfect example ofÂ someone who has stepped outside of the traditional “art box” and found a niche where he can create, profit, and thrive. And to think we just bought a new Weber grill that certainly does not look ANYWHERE as cool as his…
Written by Nancy Davis Kho, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Standing next to a barbecue shaped like a flying buzzard on a recent sunny afternoon, the winds coming over the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains to ruffle the ashy edges of a cooking fire, metalsmith Bill Sorich can be forgiven for waxing poetic. “Fire was the first entertainment, the first television,” Sorich says, adjusting the height of the grill holding homemade elk sausage by means of a pulley system rigged through the mouth of the bird, which stands 6 feet tall. “People just like looking at fire.”
Architectural designer Kristen Harrison understands the appeal – so much so that in the 20 years she’s known Sorich, she’s purchased five of his custom-made barbecues. “I keep two at my office, two at my house, and one at a house up in Oregon,” Harrison says. “I’ve had perfectly good steak cooked on a propane grill. But with these barbecues, once we’re done cooking, we throw a few logs on and everyone gathers around the fire. It’s really the original concept of barbecuing.”
This being Memorial Day weekend, there will be plenty of people flipping on the gas barbecue or dumping charcoal briquettes into a Weber. But for those who see grilling as more contemplative, there are a few Bay Area artists who have elevated the humble barbecue into art – art that cooks.
Surrounded and inspired by nature, Sorich, 62, lives with his wife, Lisa Hedstrom, a textile artist, in a house the couple built high in the Los Altos hills, near Skylonda. The house and expansive workshop, like much of Sorich’s art, make liberal use of recycled materials, and power is generated in part through solar panels and a windmill. Given the seclusion of the rustic property, it’s no surprise that animals are a recurring motif in Sorich’s whimsical fire pits and barbecues.
There’s an armadillo made from a discarded beer barrel, its individual stainless-steel tiles welded on and the sinuous tail working as a handle to open and close the top. With the top closed, the grill looks like garden statuary. “That one took me 10 years to think up, and three weeks to make,” says Sorich. Two tall iron barbecues, one shaped like an emu and the other a flamingo, have weathered to an orangey red, while a mini-grill shaped like a sea turtle looks ready to swim into the current.
“My idea of art isn’t something you hang on a wall,” says Sorich. He trained as an industrial welder and worked for Westinghouse for years but liked the creative challenge of making something from discarded materials. “I come from industry, so they have to work,” he insists of his fire pits and grills, which range in price from $500 to $15,000. “They’re guaranteed, for my life or yours.”
Q-ing up the ‘cues
By day, Don Carlson, 47, teaches welding to middle school students at Marin Country Day School. But by night, Carlson, who learned his skills as a pipe welder in the Navy, creates monstrous barbecues from recycled materials in his Richmond garage. Bobby-Q, Rooster-Q and Q-Ball are a few of the Monster-Qs that have emerged from found objects through Carlson’s artistic vision.
While they share a certain asymmetry and ferocious looking “mouths” that act as the grill’s opening, each barbecue is unique. “Finding the right pieces takes a while,” he says. “It’s a good thing I don’t do it to make a living,” Carlson quips, “because I have to make them at my own pace.” A typical Monster-Q, most of which are built around empty halon tanks once used in fire extinguishers, might incorporate wrenches, railroad spikes and chipping hammers in its quirky design. One Monster-Q even sits on discarded cafeteria table wheels for easy rolling.
“I go in with an idea of what I want to make,” Carlson says, “but the personality evolves as I work on it.” Carlson’s otherworldly barbecues, which cost $500 to $3,500, are mostly sold by word of mouth and at open-studio events. His next open studio is in conjunction with Pro Arts East Bay Open Studios.
After Brian McConnell finally finished redesigning his backyard in Twin Peaks, he didn’t want the standard barbecue setup. “I wanted to have a grill that looked like part of the garden and that was not immediately recognizable as a grill,” McConnell, an entrepreneur, said.
He turned to Oakland blacksmith Daniel Hopper to create something that would fit into the plant theme. Hopper, who tends toward organic, industrial designs, came up with the perfect form for a backyard barbecue: a carnivorous Venus flytrap. Using a cut-up Weber grill as a form around which to shape the sheet metal, Hopper designed two enormous flytrap-shaped barbecues and three companion metal pitcher plants for lights. Originally, one of the forged steel flytraps was meant for vegetarian fare and the other for meat, but McConnell says, “I think we lost track of which side is which.”
Of the design Hopper says, “I like my work to incorporate an element of danger that people feel compelled to address physically.” In the case of the flytrap, it’s evident in the long metal trigger hairs made from forged pipes: They’re handy to hang a utensil on but undeniably menacing. Extending well beyond the barbecue’s closed mouth, guests ignore them at their peril.
McConnell appreciates the fact that Hopper’s art isn’t static. “I entertain a lot and like the idea of functional art that people interact with. Paintings are nice, but a barbecue does something useful.”