Copper in the Arts

May 2009

Dennis Cordeiro's Unique Copper Fish

By Ashley Morris

Red Snapper Red Snapper Copper Fish

Photos courtesy of Dennis Cordeiro

Fishing on Pawleys Island, S.C., one of the oldest summer resorts on the East Coast, is as natural a sight as the palmetto trees that socialize along the sandy barrier beaches. It's one of the reasons Dennis Cordeiro's hobby of handcrafting copper fish reeled in such success since the California telephone company retiree and his wife moved to Pawleys in 2005. Today he creates several types of copper fish, from the popular local spottail red drum, spotted sea trout, flounder and red snapper to salmon, sharks and loggerhead sea turtles, South Carolina's state reptile, which also nightly nest on the island.

But Cordeiro's reason for continuing his trade isn't about the number sold from his school of fish. "I don't do it for the money - I come out here to my garage to make them because it's fun," he says. "All proceeds go to my children and grandchildren."

In 1998, while visiting one of his children in Wisconsin, Cordeiro was first sparked by the copper craft when he saw copper lawn sprinklers in a gift shop and reacted with: "I can make that!" So he did, toured the U.S. in a 40-foot motor home, and shifted his focus to fish during a stay in Florida five years ago upon his nephew's request for a copper fish.

From that moment, Cordeiro says, hammering out his Unique Copper Fish has continued to be a learning process. He shows me, for example, in his garage workshop how he recently discovered that soldering from the backside of the fish with a small propane torch creates a shimmering rainbow of colors (green, blue, orange), combined with a process of steel wool brushing and lacquer coating. He's also learned to curl the edges of the fish to give the artwork that 3-D finish and how to concoct a homemade recipe for patina using products from Michael's craft store, plus rock salt, vinegar, ammonia and Miracle-Gro.

Brown Trout Brown Trout Copper Fish

Photo courtesy of Dennis Cordeiro

One thing that Cordeiro learned from his first fish, however, is how much he loved working with copper over other metals, like aluminum. "It's malleable, it brightens and shines up, and it's virtually mistake-free with a chisel," he says. "Even if there's a severe dent, I can bring it back. … Copper is a forever thing."

Cordeiro prefers to use his hands over the 7- to 12-hour creation process, having learned quickly that pneumatic tools and scroll saw blades are just too fast for this kind of intricate handiwork. He starts with a pattern taken from a photograph from a client or the pages of photographs or illustrations on the Internet and traces it onto butcher paper. "Sometimes it takes three hours to make the pattern," he explains. "The hardest part is drawing it to scale."

He then hand-cuts the copper sheeting (3 feet wide by 10 feet long) purchased from roofing companies. "I used to buy copper from a salvage yard, but it just took too long to clean it," says Cordeiro. The cost of new copper, he says, is about $5 per square foot.

Cordeiro's maximum size and sale price is a 46-inch dolphin for $300. "I give a lot of value to my work, but I'm told my work is undervalued," he says. "I'm just happy to sell them to buy more copper … I do a lot of bartering, like when I traded a spottail fish for a four-hour charter fishing trip in Charleston."

Cordeiro seems satisfied to travel with his wares to regional art festivals (two are coming up in Mt. Pleasant and McClellanville, S.C.) and to sell the fish online to clients across the United States, Brazil and the UK.


Unique Copper Fish, Pawleys Island, SC

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