You never know where a spark of inspiration will take you. As a young artist, Lanny Bergner needed to solve a problem with a piece he was working on. In the process, he developed an enduring method to create sculptural forms with metal mesh, simple tools and flame.
How did you get into sculpting with metal mesh? What do you enjoy most about it?
I got into sculpting mesh by accident in 1982 when I had just started my final year of graduate school at Tyler School of Art. At the time I was doing metal fabrication and while I was in the process of constructing a full size non-functional bed form, I needed some type of shear fabric to stretch between the foot of the bed and the headboard. Aluminum insect screening came to mind. It was not wide enough so I had to figure out how to connect two sheets of screening together. So I used a flat nose pliers to twist frayed ends of the screening together to make the full size bed sheet. I then figured out that I could make two see through pillows out of the same material using the same method of construction. This is still the fabrication process I use to this day.
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Many people would be surprised to see metal mesh described as fiber. What characteristics does metal have in common with the softer materials we usually think of as fiber?
It is a woven material, so that is one similarity. Depending on the gauge of the metal it can also be quite flexible and malleable. Because of the way I apply heat to add color and create patterns and imagery on the material it also has surface design characteristic related to the fiber arts. I also use wire as a fiber artist would use thread; I sew the twisted seams together as a way of reinforcing the connection points and to embellish the seams and openings.
How do you achieve the varied colors and patterns on your metal mesh pieces?
I use the flame from a propane torch to color the otherwise grey stainless steel mesh. And I use finer flame from a butane torch to burn lines, patterns and dots into the material. So I have a somewhat limited range of colors, shades of amber, burgundy and blue, which I can get without the use of any chemical additives. Fortunately, these are all pretty nice colors. The color is determined by how hot the flame is and how close it is to the mesh. Amber is the coolest, Burgundy second and Blue is hotter still. Then if the metal turns white-hot the mesh will be charcoal grey.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on one or two pieces at a time.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I am envious of the organized studio, but after working for over 35 years I finally have to admit organization is not my strong point. I tend to focus on what I’m working on so things get a bit messy and chaotic around me.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Since the mid-80s, nearly all my wire mesh is from Edward J. Darby and Son, Inc. in Philadelphia.
I rely only on a few basic tools. Small mini linesman pliers are essential to my work, which I use to connect the mesh together. I also use needle nose pliers and aviation shears. A 5-gallon propane tank, hose and torch tips as well as a small butane torch are essential to the flame work. I like a simple, direct, hand-working approach to art making, so I have stuck with that throughout most of my career.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I usually listen to jazz while working.
What inspires you?
My work is inspired by the natural world. So my work references biomorphic forms (plant biology, microorganisms, undersea creatures), earth geology and cosmology.
Are there recurring themes in your work?
Many times there are – themes like vessel forms, teapots, suspended pod forms. I used viruses as a theme for a while.
Do you do series work?
I like to work in a series. Now I am working on a series inspired by seashell forms, which I am calling “Meshells.”
How does that affect your approach?
It focuses my attention and gives some structure to the creative process.
How do you make the leap from the idea in your head to the art you produce?
It is really not much of a leap. Not when the piece you are working on sets the stage for the next one. Sometimes just a suggestion of something gets my mind going and if that stays with me I’ll go about figuring out how I might go about translating that into a mesh form.
Techniques? What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I have a way I connect mesh together and an edge finishing technique that is simple and direct, but recognizable as my particular technique. The torch work I do on stainless steel mesh is also a signature style of mine.
Does your creative work come easily or do you struggle with your ideas? How do you get past obstacles?
Creative work comes easily for me and I don’t struggle with ideas. So it is more a case of not having the time to actualize all the ideas.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I always had an active imagination. As a child I spent much of my time alone, so I would entertain myself building structures and forts for my set of small plastic army men and equipment. Those kits were popular back in the late 50 and early 60s. That probably helped me tap into my creative side.
Creative skill is another issue. I believe in the 10,000-hour rule and that ceaseless repetition is the way to truly hone a skill. Art making is work, but a rewarding and joyful one.
What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
For me it is probably the business aspect. A person who is successful in the arts needs to be creative on how to live your life in addition to being creative with the art making.
When you’re not making art, what other interests do you have?
I do some volunteer work with local and national arts organizations, and when relaxing, I enjoy gardening, running and playing guitar.
Do you sell your work? If so, where can people find it?
I do sell my work. Locally, I show my work at Scott Milo Gallery in Anacortes, Washington and in May I will be having a two-person exhibition at i.e. Gallery. On the east coast I show at Gravers Lane Gallery in Philadelphia and Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge. I also have a large triptych wall piece up at the Bellevue Arts Museum which will remain on display through the summer.
And I teach workshops from time to time. I have a five-day workshop scheduled for the Touchstone Center for Crafts this coming August,19-23.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
My current work is focused around the torch work in combination with hand modeling the mesh to create a topographical effect. These are taking the form of shallow relief wall pieces and biomorphic three-dimensional works.
Interview published April, 2019.
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