As an artist, Russell Whiting wants to make sculptures that exhibit the skills and techniques that he developed as a metal worker over the last 30 years. His method of working steel is uniquely a product of his involvement and experiences in the oil and shipbuilding industry of Louisiana. Russell developed a technique of carving steel with the oxyacetylene torch that produces complex surfaces that are fascinating and heavily textured.
Were you a landed butterfly or a fly on the wall, you might often see Russell Whiting sitting in one of his retrofitted scrapyard-looking folding chairs, silently observing and critiquing one of his latest creations – still glowing, red-hot, searing, molten metal.
The idea of carving metal
Whiting has carved wood, stone and plastic, but what really puts him in a class all by himself is his technique of carving steel with an oxy-acetylene torch. Whiting’s figures are eerily lifelike, especially the female nude-winged figures taking flight or, the daunting three-ton buffalo singled out from the herd fearlessly facing you. So exacting is the detail that you might be stopped in your tracks at the sight of this massive animal, or consider touching the angel.
Working with metal since 1980, first as a welder and fitter in the shipyards around New Orleans and then offshore, Whiting began to envision how construction grade steel could be carved into expressions of his thoughts. Perhaps this conceptualization goes back to his fourth-grade experience in Ms Perry’s class (former teacher and avid birder) with his creation of hand-painted, cast plaster of Paris birds. To this day, Whiting safeguards and modestly displays them in a glass cabinet as fond remembrances of his start. Might it have been this experience of the ten-year-old Whiting that would give life to his talent and drive as the artist that we know today?
Technique of sculpting
Whiting’s technique of carving steel utilises the oxy-acetylene torch (both oxygen and acetylene sources) to cut the metal as a painter might use a brush. This process of cutting, pioneered by Whiting, produces “complex surfaces that are heavily textured and fascinating,” he says, and “the work exhibits the strength of steel as a sculptural medium.”
His carved steel technique is distinguishable from found objects, mill shaped objects, or those traditionally created in contemporary steel sculpture that focuses on additive techniques such as poured, forged or fabricated works. Instead, “carving steel,” he contends “is subtractive and more freeing.” Explaining his technique Whiting says, “the carving flame transfers directly into the steel leaving very distinctive brush marks. The torch, which can reach up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, creates a molten stream that quickly liquefies the metal which is then blown out by a jet of oxygen, leaving the base metal with the negative shape of the molten stream–much like the carved banks from a rushing river. I then build the individual figures by layering silhouettes of cut out plate steel, which is welded into a single carving block. Now, I melt the figure from the block using the oxy-acetylene torch.” It is this cutting process with the torch and flame (subtractive in nature), that Whiting has founded, that defines his technique of working metal into sculptures.According to Whiting, he lets the material dictate the final look as the “steel grabs the molten stream of the torch and cuts its own path” of which he has little control. “The steel dictates, he says, it’s a collaboration of the materials. The nature of working with molten steel means accidental textures, shapes and effects that balance realism—a mix of control and chaos.”
According to Whiting, he lets the material dictate the final look as the “steel grabs the molten stream of the torch and cuts its own path” of which he has little control. “The steel dictates, he says, it’s a collaboration of the materials. The nature of working with molten steel means accidental textures, shapes and effects that balance realism—a mix of control and chaos.”
Russell Whiting is a self-taught artist who was born in Bastrop, Texas and grew up in Bastrop Louisiana. Growing up in a single-parent home after age 11, with a full time working mother, Whiting had few restrictions on his independence. At the age of 16, he moved to New Orleans and recalls with fondness walking the famous French Quarter and particularly Royal Street, where he sought out gallery windows that featured the art deco sculptures of Erte’ and Chiparus. These sculptures undoubtedly had a profound influence on his developing artistic style. By age 18, creating by tirelessly doing, Whiting’s unrelenting dedication to the craft of drawing, painting, carving, and his work in the oil industry as a welder, set the stage. According to Whiting, “I came to realize during my work in the oil industry that I could carve steel like wood, just using a torch instead of a chisel. I learned how molten steel could be controlled by how hot it gets and how it reacts to gravity. It can be dripped, sagged, pierced, cut and gauged, all determined by the application of heat and oxygen pressure.”
Russell Whiting: Today and the future
In the 2013 Poydras Corridor Sculpture Exhibition in New Orleans, commenced in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which featured installations of some 15 artworks by various sculptors, Whiting’s piece titled Man Defeats Chair, is a humorous parody on man’s (human beings’) ability to overcome difficulty and challenges in life. The torch-carved, larger- than- life sculpture, is a male figure standing on a chair with arms raised and extended on each side in symbolic victory. The chair is a metaphor for challenge, according to the artist, who says: “Be it the chair at the office, at the school, or of our own making, the man standing on the chair with arms raised is an affirmation of success over the challenges that life puts in our path.” It was fitting that Whiting’s sculpture Man Defeats Chair was among those chosen for the outdoor exhibition in the city of New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina, as it served as a symbol of the steel strength inherent in the human spirit to overcome challenge and adversity and rise above it. In the eyes of many, New Orleans is a city revived, transformed and alive again, in much the same way it was, prior to the devastation wrought by Katrina in 2005.
Whiting’s figurative sculptures all tell a story, and interestingly bring the viewer along in a sort of communication or reflection. Referring to his works, Whiting says: “It makes one work their mind and stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable in figurative sculpture. There are no rules, no correct proportions.” In a quiet kind of way, Whiting’s work is conceptually freeing, rejuvenating, and satisfying.