Copper in the Arts

July 2007

Mark Oberkirsch and the Art of Copper Repoussé

By Vanessa Finney

Poppies, by Mark Oberkirsch Poppies, Copper Tooled Art by Mark Oberkirsch

Photograph courtesy of Mark Oberkirsch

Thirty-two years ago, Mark Oberkirsch tooled a new fate for himself. With the encouragement of his wife, Jean, he traded his 9-to-5 job to pursue his passion of metalsmithing, and hasn't looked back since. Today, he is revisiting the art of copper repoussé and leading the Arts and Crafts revival movement by paying homage to this unique process of tooled copper.

Since he was a young child, this Missouri-based artist has always been interested in the arts, but focused on metalsmithing as a young adult, when he apprenticed as a metalworker with two St. Louis sculptors. Here, he eventually became involved in copper, and although he never formally studied copper crafts, he chose this unique medium as the basis for his art.

"I don't know why I chose copper, maybe it was the color and the malleability," says Oberkirsch. "You can do so much with copper as opposed to other materials. It can be sculpted, it can be flat work; it's kind of limitless what you can do with it. It just had a lot of opportunity. I think most artists find a medium that they just love. I run into very few artists that change mediums."

Once he established his medium, he was open to finding his form. He stumbled onto the Arts and Crafts phenomenon after being invited to exhibit at the first annual Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn, an event now in its 21st year and renowned for its education of collectors.

"I'm quite fond of the Arts and Crafts look," says Oberkirsch. "I love that personally, so I've tried to contribute. I saw an opportunity to be creative in Arts and Crafts shortly after I got involved in it as a collector."

In 1995, at the height of the Arts and Crafts revival, he came up with his own line, featuring a unique style.

"I do a simple version of repoussé. I'm not doing a lot burnishing to create a sculptural look, I'm just using shading and perspective," he adds.

Rocky Shores by Mark Oberkirsch Rocky Shores, Copper Tooled Art by Mark Oberkirsch

Photograph courtesy of Mark Oberkirsch

Oberkirsch's repoussé entails using a stylus to hand-draw a period design onto the back of a copper sheet, which he paints within the raised lines on the front side. He then oxidizes and lacquers the surface, mounts and mattes the art, hanging it in a custom-made frame. It's resembles a block print when it's finished, with big, bold colors.

"The Arts and Craft movement called it tooled copper," adds Oberkirsch. "They did a lot of hammered copper, copper trays and candlesticks-mostly useful things. If you took a hammer to a piece of metal, it would have even dimples in middle, plus some repousse, but most of it was artistically functional."

Oberkirsch's flatwork is designed to complement the practical furniture and lighting that are the hallmark of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. His images of trees, peacocks and poppies might hang next to a Morris chair or a classic Stickley cabinet. His frames are works of art in themselves, sometimes featuring a narrow shelf at the top and always created to be in harmony with the classic lines of Arts and Crafts.

His wife, Jean, a fellow copper artist, leans more toward a southwestern style. In fact, that style (despite their respect for the Arts and Crafts movement) is the focus of several upcoming shows this summer in Chicago, Breckenridge and Crested Butte Colorado.

"We collaborate on most things, we ask each other's advice and sometimes argue, but we get the job done," says Oberkirsch. "Jean has a good eye for color."


Artist Mark Oberkirsch is based in Hillsboro, Missouri. E-mail him at [email protected].

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