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Mountain Home Magazine

Heavy Metal

May 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon

Just as clever crows use found materials to build their nests—sometimes in unexpected configurations—metal sculptors Tony Moretti and Gwen Quigley bring their creations to life using ingenuity, found materials, and their own unique way of looking at the world. Known together as the “Crow’s Nest artists,” not because they resemble raucous black birds but because their family’s nest is near Crow’s Nest Road in Steuben County, they will be featured artists at the 2023 GlassFest in Corning, May 25 to 28, and are inviting participation.

Like glass, metal may be fabricated, shaped, and fused to other metals via heat and flame. On the last two days of the four-day arts festival in Corning’s Gaffer District, attendees will have a chance to watch Tony and Gwen’s artistic process in progress, even to collaborate with suggestions on the use or placement of an item in the three-part decorative screen they’ll be creating. They’ll arrive with the basic framework constructed, then will ornament it using metal objects dropped off at the ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes at 79 West Market Street, augmented with materials they’ve been collecting in their studio. Does that old wrench resemble a stoop-shouldered teacher you remember—or would it with the addition of some arms? Does that open-jawed rusty pair of pliers held sideways look a little like a fish? Or do you see it upright, like a ballerina en pointe? Here’s your chance to assist in the artistic process. Tony and Gwen are good listeners.

“They are true artists,” says Dr. Connie Sullivan-Blum, executive director of the ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes. “They approach every situation with an eye toward how to make it more beautiful, more impressive, and more expressive of something in the human spirit.”

The two met in Mendocino, California, where Tony was running an educational program expanding on basic blacksmithing skills. He’d previously worked in other aspects of sculptural metalworking, from casting bronze bells to architectural welding and lost-wax casting. His father, the late Michael Moretti, taught art in Hammondsport, where he was one of the founders of what is now known as the Keuka Arts Festival (this year it’s June 10 to 11 in Hammondsport). Gwen learned metalworking from the ground up at her family’s metal fabrication shop in Michigan.

“I grew up with the smell and feel of metal,” Gwen says. “My family are super-creative in a practical way, so I knew how to problem solve and make things mechanically work. But it took meeting Tony for me to start making things creatively out of metal.”

Long connected to the late Walter Taylor, founder of Bully Hill Vineyards, three of the pair’s collaborations may be seen there: the tall, graceful metal sunflowers at one entrance, an intricate railing around a memorial overlook, and one of their most recent public sculptures: an iconic larger-than-life bronze and copper goat set in a niche beneath the overlook. Love My Goat is also the first piece they’ve actually signed.

All three are complex, with intricate detailing, but it’s the fencing around the overlook that might take the longest to visually unpack. More than twenty years old, made as a memorial to Walter Taylor, it’s the first large work they did together. Antique bits of crockery found in Keuka Lake pave the terrace, surrounded by a railing forged from old railroad spikes, farm implements, tools, and wire, all creating a bucolic scene they believe Walter would have recognized and enjoyed. Tony says it was particularly wonderful to work with antique iron, which retains a texture unlike anything more recently made.

“Little kids end up going up there and intuitively touching it,” says Gregg Learned, Bully Hill’s winemaker. “It’s fascinating to watch. Adults spend time figuring it out. But to see kids in this day and age see art and respect it restores my faith in humanity!”

Most of Tony and Gwen’s art energy is channeled into commission work, which has taken them across the country as well as to England. At home, they live off-grid and put their work on Instagram, but they don’t have a website and they don’t advertise. Work finds them via word of mouth.

“Anyone we’ve done work for will send someone our way afterwards,” Gwen says.

Often they’re asked to create gates or railings, sometimes smaller pieces for indoors. “We have to try to find out what their vision is, what’s their emotional attachment,” Gwen explains. “Then ask a lot of questions.” For instance, if a client asks them to create a gate, they first need to know how the owners feel about their home. Do they want it represented as an open, welcoming place, or do they prefer to feel enclosed and protected once they cross the threshold? They always welcome what they call the “third voice” in the collaboration.

Gwen says the longevity of metal “is something I struggle with. It’s going to be around forever. It gives me a deep sense of responsibility when I make something.”

The pair also collaborate on another long-lasting art legacy: working together to teach hands-on workshops for adults and children in schools, libraries, and outdoor venues.

In their shared studio space beneath their house, in addition to a forge, a massive anvil, a work bench, and an assortment of hand-held tools, are other commissioned works-in-progress. Some pieces take more time than others, and Tony says it helps to have a piece present in their work space where they’re continually moving around it, often sensing where another piece needs to be added, a modification made, an existing aspect adjusted.

Their work during GlassFest will be both planned in advance and on-the-ground spontaneous. “We’re coming in with a thematic idea [based on an advance look at metal donations] but once we’re there, we’re going to try to move quickly,” Tony says, even though welding metal pieces together is not an instant process. He smiles. “It’s magical that way.”

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