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Connecticut sculptor creates modern weathervanes

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 1981



New York

Contemporary weathervanes and exuberant mobiles intrigue Connecticut sculptor David Burt most as he heats, beats, and braises the sheet brass, copper, bronze, and aluminum that are the metals of his craft.

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Mr. Burt, an artist who lives and works in Stamford, Conn. but whose work can be seen in different parts of the world, says he became interested in modern weathervanes when a friend asked him to make one to top off her new contemporary home.

"Since nearly all the sculptures I do are either up in the air or the figures appear to be contemplating flight, or are floating in suspension, it seemed natural to me to fashion a contemporary "flight form" as a weathervane. My directional figures could be poised on meridians that mark the four winds."

This effort was so successful and acceptable that it launched him on many other abstract weathervane sculptures which, with their ballbearings, actually do point with the wind as well as serve a highly ornamental purpose. Most buyers, of course, place them on their roofs. Some stand them on the ground or the floor or, in the case of one Maine owner, jut them out, majestically, over a piece of rugged Atlantic coastline.

Most of Mr. Burt's unique sculptured weathervanes are used to complement modern homes, although the artist points out that they would be equally suitable on any traditional structure. They sell for prices ranging from $800 to $2500, although the general range of this sculptor's total art production of metal sculpture is from $300 to $8000.

Many new homes, with their lowered ceiling heights, do not provide adequate space or setting for his sculptured mobiles, unless they have cathedral-type ceilings. But his mobiles, and other forms of welded metal sculpture, are very much at home in the lobbies of office buildings, embassies and schools. His work has been installed in the lobbies of the U.S. EMbassy at New Delhi, India, as well as in many corporate headquarter buildings, including Burlington Mills, American Can, Anaconda Copper, the Italian Steamship Lines, and at the University of Wisconsin.

Mr. Burt, a 1940 Harvard graduate, did a mid-career switch to art after years of publicity, copywriting and a 14-year stint as a promotion writer and manager at Time Inc. in New York. On a vacation visit to his father-in-law, who was a chief engineer for a Pittsburg steel company, the older man gave him access to his garage machine shop with all his tools, band saws, lathes, and welding torches.

"With the tools and materials placed in my hands, I concocted a metal sculpture that to my utter surprise won first prize in the next Time, Inc. employees' art show," Mr. Burt recalls.

After that encouragement, he worked in his own garage evenings and weekends, cutting and hammering sheet metals into forms that developed the contours of wings, waves, and airfoils.

"I was fascinated," he explains, "with compound curves and undulating surfaces, and with forms that expressed the buoyant sense of flight."

Soon friends, and strangers, too, began to buy his work. His first major one-man show was held at the Sculpture Center at 167 East 69th Street in New York in 1963. He has had six exhibitions at the Sculpture Center since, the last solo show being last month.

By 1967, David Burt felt secure and ready enough to leave corporate life behind and launch himself as a full-time sculptor. Today he works, along with 40 other artists, in light, spacious studios in the renovated old Yale and Towne factory in Stamford. This six-story, multi-structure complex had been deserted and empty for over 30 years. Today it hums with the artistic activity of several dozen photographers, sculptors, painters, restorers of historic buildings, and woodworkers.

The building, which dates back to 1865, is now a mini art colony, although it is staidly called Stamford Industrial Park and does include a few businesses as well. It is located at 200 Henry Street in Stamford, Conn. and has brought a renewal of life and activity to Stamford's long-neglected South End. Mr. Burt, who moved to the new colony a few months ago, says he enjoys its "encouraging atmostphere and sense of comaraderie."

In this new studio setting, the sculptor is annealing his sheet metal to make it malleable, then shaping and stiffening with forming hammers, and braising sections of it together to form graceful structures. "I let the metal work for me," he explains. "Under the beat of the hammer, the material naturally takes on curves, dished concavities and organic contours. I could never sketch ahead of time the forms that I eventally arrive at in my three-dimensional sheels that are hardly thicker than an automobile bodyshell.

"When I carve with a welding torch, I actually eat away at the profile until there is more air than metal. It is the shape, not the mass or bulk, that makes the piece rigid."

As he beats and shapes with his hammer, he says, he tries to "sound a light, lyric note." Sometimes he calls his forms "welded traceries" because of their sense of airiness. He does admit to influences, and says he responded greatly to Picasso's vision of lightweight metal sculpture of five decades ago. He has been significantly influenced, as well, by the organic and curvilinear forms of Henry Moore and the "Floating sculputures in the air" of alexander Calder.

"Without a free-wheeling sense of efforlessness, and artlessness," he says, "I couldn't have begun to produce the volume of works that I have. Art is the most demanding work in the world, but you can't force it. You can only give in to it. I consider art an act of surrender."

Mr. Burt had his first show abroad in Dublin last September, and has exhibited in Denver, as well as in New England and New York. Later this year, examples of his work will be at the Paige Gallery in dallas. Several of his modern weather vanes will soon be soaring over the roofs of some prestigious Texas homes.