The Soft Hammer

oregon artists, eugene pavlov, hammered metal, sheridan, eugene, portland

written by Addie Hahn | photos by Eugene Pavlov

Where a coffee table might otherwise be in Dave Hanson’s living room, there is a hefty anvil mounted to a tree stump. In winter, Hanson, 61, fires his wood stove, brews a pot of coffee, sits at his makeshift workstation and turns out organically inspired hammered copper and brass vases, bowls and sculptures. Some are brilliantly golden and petalled like seed pods, others are weathered, cracked and aqua in color, suggesting ancient forms of marine life.

oregon artists, eugene pavlov, hammered metal, sheridan, eugene, portland

“My primary inspiration comes from nature,” Hanson said. “When I was 5 years old, growing up on a farm outside of Boring, Oregon, I remember seeing a bachelor’s button flower and just being transported into another dimension. It put me on this path to nature appreciation.”

To make each piece, Hanson alternates quick hammer blows with passes from a 1,000˚F blowtorch to sheets of metal that he forms over thick, steel bars he bent himself. Through a process called “raising,” with each round, he slowly, deliberately changes the shape in front of him. He has learned how to combine heat, ammonia and salt to create burnt reds, bold blues and gritty textures.

The prospect of being an artist has never sat well with Hanson. Instead, he considers himself more of a maker of things. “I’ve always been one,” he said. “I used to call myself a builder, but ‘maker’ is a better term, because it covers everything. From as early as age 7, I was making things like little toys. I’ve always been a hands-on, do-it-myself person. I’ve never been intimidated by new subjects.

In 1984, Hanson met Melinda Moorefield, now 59, on a rafting trip on the John Day River. Two years later, they bought seven acres in Sheridan overlooking the Yamhill Valley. While Moorefield was working as a librarian in Amity, Hanson was as a stay-at-home dad for the couple’s three children and built a 2,000-square-foot home, to which he has made ten additions.

In 2006, when their bathroom needed a new light fixture, Moorefield requested one made from copper. Hanson took on the challenge and created a simple copper panel with six holes for frosted bulbs.

“Just having this material that I’d never had experience with before appealed to my curious nature,” he said. The project also led him to recall a chance meeting he had—seventeen years prior—with renowned Portland-area metalsmith Greg Wilbur at the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene.

“Greg had made these vessels out of brass and copper—they were just exquisite little things with narrow necks on them,” he said. “I wondered, how in the world does he do this without a seam and weld them back together? I never forgot that.” Hanson contacted Wilbur and found him to be a tremendous source of knowledge and encouragement.

The student quickly learned how to source inexpensive copper and how to anneal metal to make it more supple for shaping. A year-and-a-half after making the family light fixture, Hanson crafted his first vase. He continued to refine his techniques, growing more adept at shaping curves and angles of vessels, statue-like busts, and even high-heeled shoes from single sheets of metal.

In 2009 and 2011, Wilbur asked Hanson to demonstrate his technique at Art in The Pearl Fine Arts & Crafts Festival in Portland. In 2013, Hanson opted to work with brass, a metal stiffer than copper, producing pieces in magnificent warm, gold tones. Wilbur invited him to show his work in an exhibition that featured twenty-two esteemed metalsmiths in the United States and Japan called “East Meets West: The Hammered Object.” Two of Hanson’s submissions—a stunning copper vase with a blue ammonia-and-salt patina and a finely detailed woman’s torso in brass, debuted at Waterstone Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland.

In recent summers, the lure of operating a hot blow torch is sometimes less compelling than tending to his backyard, where, for twenty-eight years, he has been cultivating an expanse of native trees, handmade rock walls and trellises, towering bamboo groves, a tranquil pond and a maze of vegetables in beds.

Outdoors, Hanson still finds his inspiration. “Natural forms are elegant, evolved responses to the forces of nature,” he said. “I once heard the quote, ‘Nature never commits an aesthetic mistake.’ Nature has been in the evolution business for a long, long time. The challenge is to find the forms that work, that suggest the lines and shapes in nature, to transform with a hammer a featureless sheet of metal into a form that pleases the eye.”

Hanson’s work is featured at Currents Gallery in McMinville, Art Elements in Newberg and RiverSea Gallery in Astoria.

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