Copper in the Arts

April 2011

Darby Patterson: Love in Bronze

By Ashley Morris

A bronze cast of the Chinese character for love. A bronze cast of the Chinese character for love.

Photograph courtesy of Darby Patterson

Darby Patterson put her hands around a long-lost love in her mid 50s: bronze. The artistic relationship was there all along, she just didn't know it until she sat down with a few pounds of clay to begin her bronze sculptures after she was laid off from a job in corporate communications and government relations.

"I start with a picture and a vision and a lump of clay and marry those two together - then I have this thing that never existed before in front of me," says Patterson. "Some people can draw. I didn't discover this until I was 55, 56 - that I could sit down with clay and do this; it came naturally, it was remarkable. I had no teaching, no training."

Patterson's son Rene Steinke, a renowned glassblower, began his craft at age 16; and her daughter, Ianna Nova Frisby, became a ceramic artist and art teacher early on. Patterson is now following in her children's artistic footsteps. She shares some space in her son's studio/warehouse, Rene Glass, and uses the second floor of her Sacramento home as a workspace.

"It's such a multi-step process," she says. "The clay is the creative part, when you're creating and carving. I disappear for hours. Then you have to deal with a different part of your brain in creating the mold, dealing with chemicals and the ratios of the elements you use to make the molds - it's sometimes a lot of trial and error, then you pour a wax replica, then it's off to the foundry. And sometimes that's not the end of it. It's all about wearing different hats. I think people don't understand the many steps involved and the skills it takes to sculpt bronze."

Patterson has been busy with commission work for a water reclamation plant and a public library, plus dabbling in a line of precious, patina-brushed small bronze boxes - perfect for keepsakes.

Darby Patterson and Mary Healy Artist Darby Patterson (left) with Zoo Director Mary Healy, welcoming Darby's bronze penguin to the Sacramento Zoo.

Photograph courtesy of Darby Patterson

"I like the idea of whimsical things that make people smile - realistic, but fanciful," she says. "I have an emperor penguin sculpture at the zoo in Sacramento. It's child-sized, so kids can go up and pet the head, and now the top of the head has this pretty polished area from all the petting. Sometimes my projects come from e-mails from my website, like someone who wanted a bronze fire hydrant for her dog's ashes."

A few of her bronze visions are also combined with her son's hand-blown glass, like a bronze camel lined with a red rim of glass. Animals, in fact, seem to be Patterson's muse - but she's not sure why.

What she does know is why she loves the process of sculpting bronze - from start to foundry to finish. "I love the smell of the bronze, the sounds of the chains clanking, the whole aura in a foundry," says Patterson. "It's all about that magic - alchemy - that happens when you take copper or bronze, beautiful on their own, and add a little zinc and some other chemistry. It creates something that endures time. And that's one of the things that so attracted me.

"Glass breaks, ditto for clay," she continues. "Bronze is as forever as I can imagine. That combined with the ancient feel of the process, the repetition of history and doing what an artisan did in a similar way thousands of years ago. How cool is that?"


Darby Patterson, Sacramento, CA

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