The Perfect Cast
Mar 31, 2020 10:33AM
By Karey Solomon
Dave Ackerman keeps hoping to be somewhere near a stream the opening day of fishing season. His father and uncle inspired him with the joy of trying for trout with hand-tied flies. But he also loves art, and since retiring from his work as a prison guard he’s enjoyed a second life as a full-time sculptor and jewelry designer. “And I’m a better artist than a fisherman,” he admits, managing to sound just very slightly regretful.
For years he sold his work at a gallery on Market Street in Corning, now closed. Then, eleven years ago, he crossed the street and met Gordon Gustin, owner of Gustin’s Gallery Goldsmiths. Gordon and Alfa Shaw, another artist who works at Gustin’s, became Dave’s mentors, teaching him the art of working with precious metals. Dave, in turn, became one of the jewelry workers whose work is shown and sold at Gustin’s. His sketchbook began to fill with designs for commissioned works as well as jewelry made from repurposed historic Corning art glass. Dave finds inspiration in the natural world, the people he’s met and read about, and the materials he works with. As a child, he loved assembling models, then went on to design model soldiers complete with uniforms authentic to their period. His work is informed by history as well as years of re-enacting Revolutionary and Civil War battles. For these, he often sewed his own uniforms, hands-on experience which enriched his ability to create sculptures that look historically authentic. In some smaller statues, the clothing looks so convincingly like leather and fur that is must be touched to confirm it’s metal.
With Gordon’s encouragement, he experimented with jewelry designs, including his very popular fish rings. “I initially thought sportsmen would like them,” he muses. “But it turns out, people just like the fish.” A fish cannot only symbolize Christian faith, but also luck, healing, health, creativity, and abundance. Dave’s fish look freshly scooped from the water, about to try to wriggle out of the net. It’s possibly the life and liveliness of his work that makes it so loved.
Many of Dave’s creations are made with lost wax casting, a long and complex process. He begins with a design carved in wax or clay. Perhaps it’s a ring or a pendant created to hold a gem. A silicone mold is created around it, then the original is removed. New wax is poured in and allowed to cool; the result is unmolded and examined. Perhaps it needs refinement or a few changes. After the new wax piece is exactly as planned, this is encased in plaster, which becomes a one-use mold. Interestingly, this part of the process is called “investment.”
After the plaster cures, it’s heated until the wax runs out, then precious metal is melted, poured in, and allowed to cool. The plaster is broken away, and the piece of jewelry revealed and polished. If a gem is part of the design, this is when it’s set in.
Dave makes his jewelry on premises at Gustin’s, much of it begun at his battered work bench at the rear of the store, near a window looking out onto the alley. But larger bronze pieces, after he’s created the mold using a similar process, are cast with bronze in a foundry—there’s one at Elmira College and a private studio in Penn Yan.
“I started with miniatures, but my stuff keeps getting bigger!” he says. “I want to do monuments too, bigger works with more substance.”
In addition to his fish, he’s created statues of local heroes, from busts of Native Americans who lived here before we did to war veterans from many different conflicts. These larger works are more complex in their construction, because he has to add armatures or bracing to retain the shape of the work as it’s being cast—and which later must be cut and polished off. And there’s an unseen ingredient in all his work, that being the research he does to ensure his artistic endeavors are historically—and, for wildlife, anatomically—accurate depictions. Just as his natural subjects seem caught in the moment before they swim away or take flight, the people he’s sculpted in bronze have expressive faces, as though they’re thinking so deeply, if you step close enough and listen, you might hear what they have to say. You can, in fact, almost hear their voices, tinged with the intonations, slang, and wisdom of an earlier time.
One local hero Dave longs to sculpt is Elmira-born Colonel Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a NASA Space Shuttle. “It bothers me there’s not a statue of her,” he says.
In a lighter and more earthbound vein, another subject he wants to memorialize is unsung Corning personality Henry, a basset hound owned by Amo Houghton in the 1960s. Once known as the “Dog About Town,” Henry would regularly make the rounds of pubs along Market Street—by himself—where he was welcomed with beer or snacks. Later he would take a cab home, though occasionally the police gave him a ride. Dave would like to see Henry in bronze, gracing Market Street again.
Dave works long, joyful hours at his art, as if to make up for lost time at beginning his second career in midlife. Whether his next conversation is with a customer who comes in with a handful of her mother’s jewelry, wanting it updated to be worn in a new way, a couple looking for unique wedding bands, a grandchild wanting him to bring a hero to life in bronze, or a fisherman wanting a reminder of a memorable catch, he’ll sketch it and turn it into distinctive three dimensional reality.
See more of Dave’s work at gustinsgallery.com/davidackerman.