Copper in the Arts

February 2009

Mountain Metalsmiths: Reflecting Nature's Beauty with Copper

By Robert Gluck

Rex with Eagle Rex Morton of Mountain Metalsmiths

Courtesy of Mountain Metalsmiths

Shockingly realistic with an acute attention to detail and color, the copper art of Rex and Marsha Morton attracts both attention and buyers.

The pair demonstrates their creative process year-round at the well-known Missouri theme park Silver Dollar City, where they share their secrets with potential customers. Impressed with their work, some commission pieces, like the Morton's latest--a stunning life-size bald eagle that took the artists 400 hours of painstaking work priced at fifteen thousand dollars.

According to Rex, the pair formed Mountain Metalsmiths in 2006, but have been collaborating and perfecting their art for nearly 40 years. Today, Mountain Metalsmiths sells unique handmade oil lamps, weavings, birdfeeders, and copper animals including birds, fish and insects.

The couple chose copper as their medium for two separate reasons: Rex was always interested in antiques and his family's roots trace back to copper.

"My uncle repaired candle holders and lanterns," Rex explains. "He became an artist and taught at Penland, the renowned craft school in North Carolina. He wrote me a letter and told me you can sell anything made out of copper. I was going to be a painter and when I got back from Vietnam I went to college at the University of Oregon, Eugene. I majored in fine art and I took a metal sculpture class. Because I liked antiques and copper, I asked my teacher if I could do some raising because I'd seen some of the pieces he'd done. That did it---I never painted again. I then dropped out and started making stuff. There was a Saturday market in Eugene where I sold everything I made. I kept at it."

Marsha first started using copper when she was throwing pots.

"I wanted to use copper handles on coffee mugs and teapots," she says.

The Morton's process involves researching their subject thoroughly to get a good feel for the true character of their sculpture, a process they just completed for a recent eagle project.

"This is the third one we did," Rex says. "The first two were commissioned pieces so we were prompted to do some research on these fascinating birds. I saw a picture of an eagle that was just about to land and I thought that was a good pose, one that you don't normally see. I showed it to Marsha and said let's do this."

The Mortons then bought sheets of copper from Three State Supply or Rose Metal, and spent weeks looking at pictures.

"The one photo we started with was the front view," says Rex. "To do a three dimensional sculpture you have to become familiar with the bird. I bought an eagle book which had feather groups described and from there we spent a few weeks doing paper patterns. From that we cut out the copper and I hammer it. Each feather is hand hammered and the veins are put in the feathers with an antique rotary sheet metal tool I've adapted for design."

Marsha works on the design part and is great with a torch. Once the pieces are hammered, Rex builds a skeleton and each layer of feathers is attached to that skeleton. Then they're soldered at high temperature by Marsha. The pieces are then shaped, hammered, attached, taken off and re-hammered. "There is a fine line between an eagle, a parrot and a hawk," Rex notes. "There are tiny details that make it look like an eagle."

The next segments of their process is coloring. The Mortons go back over the piece with the torch and color the feathers by using heat which produces different shades of light and dark.

"When we color the copper we never know exactly what it's going to do," he says. "With our weavings sometimes I get a group of strips colored one way and another group colored another way and when we weave those two groups together they take on a whole new life."

Another intriguing step is the final step: a coat of lacquer. Rex uses a lacquer made specifically for copper but says you can use any exterior clear lacquer.

"It's intriguing because some colors will disappear and other colors will come out," he says. "There are so many accidents that turn out beautiful."

Their next project, currently in the design stage, will be a Great Blue Heron. Living in Table Rock Lake, the Mortons have plenty of eagles, herons, osprey in their environment and they go on nature hikes for inspiration. "We enjoy the woods and have become more educated about nature," Rex says. "We're also doing a crappie on a rock and driftwood we found in the lake. You'll be able to see above and below the water.

Together, the Mortons continue to grow Mountain Metalsmiths, complementing each other's artistic nature.

"Rex and I collaborate," Marsha adds. "Lots of times I come up with an idea and I'll draw it out and he can put it together. He has the ability to know exactly what it will take to build it out of the copper. It's a team effort. We complement each other. I've always enjoyed the natural world. You can pull a lot from what is around you."


Mountain Metalsmiths, 399 Indian Point Rd.,Branson, MS, (417) 338-8259

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