Transforming steel into art
It has been 12 years since the metal sculptor David Aaron Friedheim returned to Baltimore from San Francisco with his wife, ceramic artist Trisha Kyner, and on this day he is in a reflective mood.
“I wake up not knowing whether I’ve been an incredible success or an abject failure,” said the 59-year-old New York native and alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Art. “How could I not even know?”
In contrast to the angst suggested by his words, however, Friedheim’s bemused expression seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of the question. The son of a painter and a classical musician, he has a long resume of building artwork on commission for private and public clients, and has exhibited his sculptures in many solo and group shows throughout the country.
Friedheim’s sculptures are the first things visitors notice outside the former mom-and-pop grocery store in Gwynns Falls where he and Kyner live and create. His brightly painted figures strike a whimsical note among the two-story brick rowhouses and modest wood-frame homes in this residential working-class neighborhood, and passing drivers regularly pull over for a closer look.
On the concrete sidewalk that runs the length of the brick building, a five-foot-tall steel man gazes primly over his shoulder. A bent steel rod forms the outline of the man’s head. An eye, a nostril and a pursed mouth occupy one hemisphere, fixing the man’s gaze to his left, while a tightly curled tube inside the other hemisphere suggests a whirring brain.
From an assemblage of parts
Without the use of any preliminary drawings, Friedheim works with steel — bending, folding, hammering, grinding, filing, bolting and welding pieces together to assemble otherworldly creatures, human figures, and even functional objects such as furniture and barbecues.
Friedheim gets some of his best material from the scrap heap, so each creation is an improbable association of rebar (ridged steel rods), sheet steel, repurposed machine parts, and other found objects, such as bent nails.
“I like building something large out of an accumulation of smaller parts,” he said, adding that he is intrigued by “grotesque imagery” and its use in the decorative arts.
“Many of my images originate in wooden furniture, ceramic plates, illuminated manuscripts, and various forms of wall coverings. I believe that creativity is often found in nooks and corners,” he added.
In Friedheim’s artist’s statement for the Maryland State Arts Council, he notes that he wants to make sculptures that require little explanation yet inspire contemplation, capture the viewer’s interest, and provide enjoyment.
His studio, which he likens to the inside of his mind — “it’s where I think with my hands as well as my eyes” — is occupied by metalworking tools and materials. And his sculptures, which range in size from towering steel monsters to gold-painted figures barely a foot high, are crammed together on a high shelf by the dozens.
Friedheim’s artistic vision has evolved through the years. Standing sculptures gave way to two-dimensional pieces sprouting on his walls or arched over a doorway, then to flat animalistic figures he refers to as “steel drawings.”
A mammoth triptych
Now these drawings have metamorphosed into something grander, with an upright triptych of monumental proportions dominating his studio.
Each of the three panels measures nearly six feet wide by ten feet high. Each contains a couple of steel drawings of winged creatures whose bodies taper into serpentine tails and are welded to a background of flowering vines.
The triptych was born of improvisation. Five years ago, Friedheim laid several steel drawings on the floor and welded them together. He liked how they looked, “like a Roman mosaic,” but they couldn’t stay on the floor, so he built a frame to enable them to stand upright. This was followed by more collages and more frames.
Friedheim’s images are inspired by all manner of art, life and imagination — from pre-Colombian ceramics to Northwest Coast totem poles to the Flintstones.
“I have sketchbooks going back years with things that catch my fancy. When I go to a museum or a library or travel, I like to have a sketchbook with me.”
Friedheim says the artist with the greatest influence on him was Pablo Picasso, whose work from the 1920s was the first of its kind to suggest a more linear kind of sculpture.
Friedheim also traces his artistic lineage through the elongated figures of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the kinetic sculptures of American abstract artist Alexander Calder, and the works of David Smith, an American sculptor who introduced welded steel sculpture to this country in the postwar period.
Although his own work reflects echoes of these earlier abstract artists, Friedheim has a traditional side. “I still believe in an art of visual pleasure,” he said, observing that many contemporary artists are “obsessed” with ideas and concepts and disregard the need to create works that are pleasing to the eye.
Colorful chameleons and frogs
In the yard behind Friedheim’s studio lies a yellow frog roughly the size of a VW Bug, with red and green spots. The frog is a product of Grendel’s Mother, a partnership created by Friedheim and his wife that generates large multimedia compositions in collaboration with students and community groups.
In 2015, the frog was displayed at Coppin State University for Earth Day, when the students held a wake to commemorate all species being driven to extinction. The frog is made of cotton bedsheets dipped in glue and acrylic paint, draped over a steel armature.
Once in a while, Friedheim will glimpse a person dashing out of a car to snap a quick selfie with the frog. He is gratified to see his art having this kind of effect.
“I don’t know what to do about the problems of the world,” he said. “Trisha and I are just artists. But one thing artists can do is focus people’s attention.”
Friedheim’s pieces have been displayed throughout Baltimore and have been seen at Artscape, Baltimore Clayworks (which has described his works as being filled with “mischievous joy”), and the Howard County annual outdoor sculpture exhibition, Artsite.
A multicolored panel of dancing children with clasped hands arcs over the entrance to the Mount Washington School playground. A brightly painted, six-foot-long chameleon has appeared at multiple locations around town, and a pink rabbit is permanently installed in the Columbia Mall; both were made in collaboration with Kyner.
Friedheim’s miniature figures can be seen in the holiday exhibition at Y:ART Gallery and Fine Gifts at 3402 Gough St. in Highlandtown through Jan. 12.
For more information or to see his work in person, Friedheim may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carol Berkower is a freelance writer in Baltimore.