ARTIST PROJECTOR: A SELF-DIDERING KEYS ARTIST MAKES HIS LIFE BY TRANSFORMING COPPER INTO SCULPTURES OF SEA CREATURES
Funny, the turns a life can take with just a gift. August Powers, a resident of Keys, had made a living for years in the food service at Seacamp in Big Pine Key and as a sailing instructor, among others. But he always liked to work with his hands. So in 1990, for a birthday present, his mother gave him a course in the art of welding at Florida Keys Community College.
“And she said, ‘I want a fountain,'” Powers told Keys Weekly.
In the course, he used oxyacetylene welding on copper with silver solder. He made his mother a fountain and loved it.
“And it just took off from there,” he said. “The copper just worked. I tried steel, but it never worked. Copper will last forever, but steel will rust and be gone.
When he started working with copper after class, his hobby was a part-time activity. He made fountain after fountain, each with different creatures and plants: stems, leaves, snails, frogs and lizards. Finally, Powers exhibited his fountains in the Artists in Paradise gallery on Big Pine Key. He observed the artwork in the gallery.
“I looked around and saw all the fish, including a barracuda,” he recalls. “So I made some barracuda sculptures. The gallery held an exhibition and they both sold.
In 1995, the Wild Side Gallery in Key West asked Powers if he wanted to join their gallery.
“It was a match made in heaven. The more I did, the more they wanted. And it went on like that for 25 years.
Thus, the self-taught artist was able to leave the food industry and earn a living by selling his sculptures. “And I don’t know how to draw,” he said, half-joking.
Powers is drawn to the creation of sea creatures because of his long-standing love for the ocean. He starts a sculpture with a sheet of copper which he buys wholesale from a roofing company. He starts with an idea for a sea animal – sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night with a vision of the next copper fish he will create – then he cuts shapes out of the copper with sturdy scissors called aviation snips.
Then, depending on the type of creature, it will add an electrical wire or copper tube purchased from Ace Hardware and braze the materials with a torch.
“You have to look at the flat piece of copper and understand with the brute force of your hands how to make it become a living being,” he said, explaining his artistic process. It will sometimes create a new welding process to, for example, make a sculpture of soft coral blush.
And all the sculptures are unique, made entirely by hand. No shortcuts with expensive plasma cutters to cut loose copper.
“He’s driven and determined,” said Robin Halevy, his longtime partner. “He invented tools and techniques.
For example, in order to make some of his sculptures green, he experimented until he found a solution of household ammonia and pool acid that gave copper the perfect color of antique green.
In 2003, Powers began volunteering to make the fancy copper marine life instruments that are used for the Underwater Music Festival. He made new instruments for the event until 2019.
“I loved that I donated my supplies, time and effort to an event that promotes reef awareness,” he said.
And he has not yet lost inspiration to create his art. “I always say, ‘The next one is the best.'”
August Powers is represented by the Shady Palm Art Gallery in Marathon and has a limited number of works at the Key West Art Center and the Artists in Paradise gallery on Big Pine.