June 30 2010 12:00 AM

Fussy neighbors, scorched tables: Welcome to Scrapfest




Some random bit of wisdom says to “do something every day that scares you.” For two weeks, I did that consistently as a member of a team competing in Old Town Scrapfest 2010. The event, a fund-raiser for the Old Town Commercial Association, is in its second year. Such Video owner David Such, who launched the project, found an apt sponsor in Friedland Industries, a metal salvage company located in Old Town.

The competition begins with teams scrounging around Friedland scrap yard for one hour to gather up to 500 pounds of scrap. They then have just under two weeks to fabricate sculptures, which are displayed and auctioned off at Old Town’s Festival of the Moon/Festival of the Sun.

For some reason this sounded like a great challenge for me in April, when OTCA put out its call for entrants. Being primarily a photographer, I conned fellow Lansing-area artists Jack Bergeron and George Hirai into being the backbone of the team. After a stream of e-mails, a buffet lunch and one happy-hour conversation, The Fortnight Fabricators were born.

One way to prepare for the competition is to have a design idea and select scrap based your pre-conceived notions. Alternately, a team could decide to let the material speak to them and look for inspiration on the fly while sorting through the scrap. We did the former.

The selection process was a blast. Like a sedate version of “Iron Chef,” contestants pick through piles of categorized scrap, schlepping their booty back to their individual cribs while their minds race with ideas. The Friedland management and staff were enthusiastic and helpful, and it was obvious this is a labor of love for them. When time was up, humongous machines rolled in to quickly scoop the leftovers back into a big pile, while forklifts whisked our cribs off to be weighed.

Our team had met several times before the kickoff day on June 12, to work out thumbnails of our design. We wanted a kinetic piece, and in keeping with the theme of the festivals, we decided to suspend an integrated sun/moon orb over a landscape of flora and fauna.

Hirai was our bugmaster. He had worked in small-scale kinetic sculptures before and was excited to design insects loosely based on those found in nature. After dropping over $500 on a tabletop welder and other assorted tools, he set to work creating intricate, elegant bees, praying mantises, spiders and beetles.

Bergeron had worked in
larger scale work, and with large kinetic pieces. He would mastermind
the mechanism to make the orb sway gently over our microcosm. He also
deconstructed the raw materials and re-imagined them into otherworldly

My role, I
figured, would be to document the process photographically, to write
the application and the artist statement, and to push a drink cart
around the workshop to keep the boys fortified. It was a beautiful but
short-lived dream.

I soon found myself bathing in showers of sparks while assisting in
welding bits and pieces, stripping the paint off sheet metal, drilling
holes in thick steel, and getting otherwise dirty and stinky. Weekend
days and every night until lightsout at my condo complex, we toiled on
our masterpiece. Whatever tools or supplies we lacked, my neighbor and
honorary team member Pat Richey cheerfully offered.

days into the project, my condo association took umbrage at the fact
that we were welding in my garage, and I received an official letter to
cease and desist. After cursing the anonymous narc who tipped off The
Man, I called in a favor and asked my dad if we could borrow his
workshop. We moved welding ops to Ionia, completing the essential
welding and burning a hole in his vintage Black and Decker Workmate
workbench, all in a single afternoon.

Back in the garage, the next eight days were spent cutting with power tools and mechanically attaching pieces to our frame.
George and Jack finalized the layout on Thursday afternoon, leaving the
evening to relax and celebrate. Bright and early Friday morning we
packed up our tools, loaded up the parts of our piece and headed to Old
Town for installation.

other entrants arrived, I realized we were in trouble. Many of the
other teams were professionals or semi-professionals, people who have
real metal workshops. We Fortnight Fabricators were obviously amateurs
among this crowd. We’re a nomadic tribe, having worked out of three
workshop/garages, trying to manipulate metal into majesty on a Home
Depot budget.

being an infamous klutz, I got through the entire process fairly
unscathed. My final injury tally: one burn, two metal slivers, four
bruises and three scratches. Amazingly, I did not break a nail the
entire time.

As the crowds mingled among the works on Friday and Saturday, the comments were positive for thecfield of work. People were impressed by the skill and charmed by the designs. While
the bids on the pieces didn’t reflect the value of the sweat equity put
into the works, at least every piece found a buyer.

Fortnight Fabricators didn’t win, place or show, but I’m not bitter. It
was a great learning experience, and my mind is already churning for
next year’s competition.

for future entrants: Keep the design simple. Scale is key: Making a big
thing small or a small thing big seems to be a good tactic.

Arrange for a good working space, and outfit it with every tool you never think you’ll need.

And finally, pick a team of creative people who have diverse skill sets and thick skin.