By Pamela Brandt
Dan and Frances Hedblom of Copper Elements in Rochester, Minnesota, will bring their flame painted copper wall art to DubuqueFest fine arts fair for the first time this year. Their unique sun-catching metalwork, along with the work of over 60 other artists, will be available for purchase on Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19, in downtown Dubuque’s Washington Park.
“Five years ago, if someone would’ve said, ‘This is what you’re going to be doing full time for a living,’ I would have laughed,” admitted copper artist Dan Hedblom, who creates one-of-a-kind wall décor with his wife, Frances, in the studio at their home in Rochester. “…but I can do some neat stuff with a grinder, Frances can do some neat stuff with a torch. The creativity has come to us slowly.” Their light-shimmering pieces are on display at galleries in Rochester, Grand Marais, and Chicago, and have recently been selected by a gallery in Manhattan.
In a lucky accident about 15 years ago, his step-mom discovered how to produce the colors by using a torch on copper, growing the technique into a copper art business. Dan was helping his dad and step-mom build frames and prepare for art shows when he took Frances along. “She took to the firing process instantly and was able to make colors. You have to have patience. Now she does all the colors.”
With a background in carpentry that comes in handy when building custom frames for their artwork, Dan is also working on an accounting degree; his wife has a master’s degree in business. Their formal training in business lends practicality to their artistic success. As Dan said, “There’s an art side and a business side, which is equally important.” Like other small business owners, they work at it 7 days a week.
Their copper wall art is created in a multi-step process that is a team effort, with Frances doing the majority of the firing. “I create, design, and build the wooden frames the copper is wrapped around and I do all the grinding,” said Dan. “What I do with the grinder makes the colors reflect, so when the sun and the light hits them, they shimmer and look like they’re moving.”
Dan explained the process of creating their stunning fire-painted copper art. After cutting the 12-ounce (about 28-gauge) copper to size, he uses a grinder or buffer with a plastic bristle disk and a variety of techniques to remove the copper’s patina. The piece is placed on an all-metal firing table, and Frances uses an acetylene cutting torch to produce colors by flame painting. Next, Dan cuts some of the color away with a rotary Dremel tool, and draws elements of the design before Frances fires the piece again.
“Back and forth from firing to grinding, and back to firing again. There’s no chemicals, no paints, no stains, just strictly torch and grinder.” Heat makes the copper flexible so it may be bent around wooden frames or curved to reflect more light. A bead roller is sometimes used for outlining with added dimension.
As a final step in the process, a spray-on UV protectant preserves the color and prevents fading. Though the finished pieces are intended for interior use, they may safely be hung on three-season porches or under an overhang. Dan said, “They’re very sun-friendly. The more light you put on the pieces, the nicer they’re going to look.”
Each piece is unique, but may repeat a design motif, with the most popular being trees or ocean horizons. Some pieces are created in matching sets, or triptychs. All of their current work is intended as wall decor, although the Hedbloms do have other ideas saved for down the road. “That’s how each piece starts off,” said Dan. “Sometimes it’s just a thought in my head, and then one day we’ll finally go ‘hey, let’s give that a try.’”
As Copper Elements, the Hedbloms are finding success in galleries and at art fairs, so they are busy building up a repertoire of artwork. They are experimenting with new pieces that are created without frames, and will be bringing some of these new items to DubuqueFest. They will also bring pieces from these collections: North Shore Lakes, North Shore Trees, Windswept Trees, Copper Connections, Copper Swirls, and Ocean Horizons.
“We will have a sampling of almost everything,” said Dan. Higher end pieces range from $100-600, upward for bigger pieces. With smaller pieces priced as low as $35 to $70, the work of Copper Elements can be affordable as a gift or for home décor.
He enjoys a common response he observes from booth visitors: “We get a lot of jaws that drop. We’re used to it, but we don’t want it to go away. We know we’re doing good when we’ve stopped people dead in their tracks.” They especially appreciate having another artist admire their work: “The ultimate compliment comes from another artist that you think of as great – when they come in your booth and they compliment you, that is probably the best.”
“This is going to be our first outdoor show of the year. We’re praying for good weather and sunshine. We’re hoping for a good show with lots of people.” Dan offered a few words of wisdom to others who may have a yearning to turn their creativity into a career. “Be unique, find something that no one else is doing, and then just have fun with it. Let it evolve.”