Eight panels of airplane-grade aluminum may not seem so impressive when stacked up against sheer amount of materials in the soon-to-open Music City Center. After all, it’s the largest public building project in Metro Nashville’s history, with 12,000 tons of rebar and 1,100 doors. That handful of metal panels are different though. They’ve been muscled into art by Jamaal Sheats, a Brentwood native and Fisk University alumnus.
“Eight Octaves” is one of eight pieces of art commissioned for the new convention center. It’s an example of repousse, or metal relief. Sheats starts with panels of plain metal, bought from the sort of suppliers that usually deal with building contractors. He draws designs on them as a guideline, sketching or tracing in ink that can later be polished away. Then comes the brute force: pressing, pounding and tapping the shapes into the metal, making a three-dimensional picture that seems to emerge out of an otherwise flat surface.
Sheats learned his craft at Fisk from the late Greg Ridley back in the late 90s. At the time, Ridley was working on a public art commission of his own: a set of copper panels for the Grand Reading Room of Nashville’s downtown library. Those show scenes and faces from the city’s history in a fairly traditional style.
This new set of panels is something of a companion piece; it shows glimpses of Music City as it is now. But where Ridley’s style is somewhat formal and traditional (appropriately so for its setting and subject matter), Sheats’ composition is looser, more fluid and stylized than that of his mentor.
New Methods, New Tools, New Materials
Traditional repousse technique uses something like a chisel, pounded into the metal with a hammer. Sometimes that’s what Sheats does, but he also likes to take his tool in hand with a pencil grip, tapping and pressing with nothing but his own arm to provide the power and force. Sheats says it takes an immense amount of pressure, but it leaves the other hand free to brace the metal. He likes being able to sense the force of every stroke to have, as he puts it, “that connection to the material.”
It also opens up a world of tools far beyond things that have a nice, broad end for a hammer to hit: “I’m known for using just about everything from a drill bit to a spoon to get it done.”
It takes imagination and resourcefulness to look at a piece of silverware and think you’ve found the perfect thing for pounding another piece of metal into shape. But that’s where Sheats finds the fun in his work. He enjoys coming up with an idea and figuring out how on earth to make that improbable thing work out to match the picture in his mind.
In this project, that attitude extends to his choice of metal. Copper is the classic medium for repousse. But to Sheats, aluminum looks new and modern, like the architecture of the Music City Center. It doesn’t give as easily, and he feels a subtle change as he pounds and taps: the more he works it, the harder it gets. He can’t raise the relief as easily as he could if he were using copper, so he has to get creative.
On this project, that means creating a sense that buildings have true interiors by shadowing in the windows with hundreds of tiny pinpricks, formed with the sharp point of a paddle drill bit. Massed together, with slight variations in their depth, the shadowed dots repel the light.
The process isn’t for the meek. Beyond taking a great amount of arm strength, the sound of metal hitting metal can be very, very loud. Close your eyes in his studio while Sheats taps, pounds and bangs and you might think you were caught in a room with a woodpecker. But Sheats finds it relaxing, Zen even, to “get a good beat going” as he works.
In some ways, the hard part on this project was handing his work over to installers. Each goes into one of a set of display boxes that are recessed into the wall outside the Grand Ballroom. They’re made to fit perfectly, but that leaves no room for error: there’s just enough wiggle room that a panel could be hung crooked. The actual method of installing the panels is exacting, too. Sheats chose an industrial tape that he says is stronger than rivets or bolts. It’s made to last, and essentially makes the art become part of the building itself. But once that adhesive sticks, it’s permanent. Sheats stood back, visibly anxious, as a pair of contractors carefully and slowly peeled back the backing from the tape and pressed the metal into place. His fingers twitched nervously, his heart pounded hard and his eyes never left the workers’ hands.
As soon as the workers stood back, Jamaal Sheats’ hands went right back to the metal. He took a bundle of steel wool and gave his creation one last polish, making it ready for the crowds of conventioneers.
“Eight Octaves” is one of eight artworks commissioned for the Music City Center on the theme of music or sound. In addition, smaller pieces by about fifty local artists will be hung throughout the building. The grand opening is scheduled for May 20.