By Pam Rosenblatt
His “Stretching Torso” sculpture can be found outside The Rose Institute of Yoga on Elm Street, and a metal tree of his design stands in Union Square. While his work spans throughout the city and beyond, production is done close to home. So close, this artist doesn’t even need to drive to work, he just has to open his back door and walk across the courtyard to his workspace.
“To me, it’s incredible,” said David Tonnesen, a metal sculptor who has been a member of the residential community at the Brickbottom artists’ building since its inception 20 years ago.
“I mean I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I was not involved in Brickbottom. Actually, I was one of the developing members of about 80 artists originally from the Fort Point district down there in South Boston. We were looking for buildings, and we were joining forces with another group, and they found this building. In a couple of years, three years, we developed it into artists’ housing, live and workspace. It was a commercially zoned area. We got a variance to make it residential as well.”
Known as a designer and fabricator, Tonnesen said he has created custom-made metal sculptures for the past 15 years. His works are always based on the organic, he said.
In addition to Tonnesen’s two pieces in the city, his works include a six foot tall hanging chandelier, an eight foot tall stainless steel menorah, the 20 foot tall “Fountain of Life” for Legal Seafoods, and the 45 foot long cod-fish wind sculpture located on the waterfront.
Abstract fish are a subject Tonnesen specializes in, and he enjoys creating these imaginary icons, he said. “I do a lot of fish. I love to do abstract fish.”
Tonnesen said he does most of the work on his own, calling in electricians when lighting pieces require wiring; on larger projects, he may ask another metal sculptor to assist him.
“I’ve sold stuff through the studio over the years and sometimes get clients,” said Tonnesen. “But I’ve done about 40 restaurants, maybe 50 restaurants, with lighting and stuff. So I get people who go in there. They say, ‘Oh, I like this. Maybe we can have something like this, maybe a little smaller, for our dining room table.’ They call me and there’s a commission. So I’ve probably done 50 commissions over the years.”
Many decisions must be made before creating these sculptures, he said. There is no instruction book on how to put these sculptures together, he said.
“I have to constantly be thinking a couple of steps ahead about what is going to happen next, how do I do this, how am I going to bend this, how am I going to make these so they fit right.”
Tonnesen develops his unique style just by bending, he said. “I actually have all these benders. I have hand benders. And I have a rotary bender. And I have a really high power bender. This is all done cold.”
The metal pieces come from different supply companies, and therefore, the stock he gets is diverse, he said.
“I have square. I have round. I have rectangle. I have flat. I have angle. I have sheets, all kinds of sheets. I like to buy extra metal, so I don’t run out during the process.”
Tonnesen said he intends his sculptures to appear different at every viewpoint; his artworks are purposefully asymmetrical.
“I love to turn straight metal. You know, I get all straight pieces and turn them into something interesting. I love these kinds of shapes and how, when you start adding them together, you get something unique. You see, a lot of my stuff is sort of this curvy stuff. Everything comes straight and flat, and I spend all my energy messing it up, making it round.”
Tonnesen said his work is modern traditional, a style similar to contemporary art.
“A foot in the tradition and another step in the future, I don’t want to be trendy. When you blacken metal, it looks like rod iron. Rod iron is very primitive metal. You know, it goes way back. So I blacken my stuff. It’s almost like something you’ve dug up. It’s really old but it has a super, timeless, futuristic look to it,” he said.
Currently, Tonnesen is working on a piece for the East Coast Grill, he said. The sculpture will be at an angle, comprised of copper, blackened steel, and lights, he said.
A Tonnesen sculpture is designed to be as maintenance free possible, he said. “And stainless. The beauty of that is you don’t need to worry about it rusting or anything. The things that I’m blackening are mild steel. This will rust, so it will also oxidize black, so that’s what I do.”
Tonnesen prepares sculptures in this manner because of the harsh outside elements, he said. “That’s always an issue when you’re working with sculpture outside. You want to make sure it’s forever.”