Craftsman Clay Edwards’ copper work sure does look a lot like art

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Craftsman Clay Edwards in his West Tisbury studio with one of his finished copper pieces of the Island. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The world premier of Edwards Copper Art takes place on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, at the Vineyard Artisans Festival at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.

A fitting day, when you think about it, since Clay Edwards, 31, of West Tisbury, credits his own dad, craftsman Ken Edwards, and legendary Island craftsmen such as Travis Tuck with mentoring him in life and art.

“I don’t consider myself an artist. Maybe that will come in time. I’m a craftsman,” Mr. Edwards said last Saturday in his studio on Christiantown Road.

Childhood friend Ben Stafford rolled his eyes and shook his head as Mr. Edwards showed an array of copper wall hangings, masks, large detailed seascapes, and Island-image designs (that looked a lot like art) to Mr. Stafford, this reporter, and Times photographer Michael Cummo. The work probably resembled art even to the inquisitive white chicken that wandered into the studio from the yard.

Mr. Edwards may see himself as a craftsman because he’s relatively new at this, courtesy of a couple of feet of snow last winter that kept him off Island roofs. It may also be that he works with construction-grade sheet metal copper, thicker than artist’s rolled copper and harder to work.

He uses it because it yields more, well, artistic effect in hue and coloration with the application of heat, and produces deeper reliefs and contrasts when hand-worked with rubber and wooden mallets, like, you know, an artist would.

This man, who shows up as joyous and grateful for his gift, provided some other clues that an artist’s soul resides within:

  • He is less concerned with what we call him than he is about his work and the possibilities it promises;
  • He is captivated by the opportunity to tell the stories of his Island’s culture and its past through his medium;
  • He is, unfortunately, more consumed by creating the work than in assessing its marketplace value, though Mr. Stafford may be of inestimable value in helping to price Mr. Edwards’ work come Sunday. Mr. Stafford was at the shop last Saturday buying some pieces (and bidding up the price of his purchases).
  • He was raised, literally, at the knee of Island artists, including the late Travis Tuck, the best-known weathervane sculptor in the world. Mr. Tuck died on the Island in 2002.

Mr. Edwards uses a process called repoussé (front) and chasing (back) to create his three-dimensional forms from copper sheeting. Simply, he creates elasticity in the copper with an acetylene torch and shapes the image with rubber and wooden tools, using both the front and the back of the surface.

For large copper ‘canvasses,’ like his seascape with fishermen on the rocks and a coming storm driving the daylight behind raised cliffs in the background, the process takes several hundred hours. “I use different oxidants to achieve colors. You can’t use acrylic paints and a brush [on copper], but this piece will last hundreds, maybe thousands of years, long after a canvas has shriveled,” he said.

“I started when I was a kid, using scraps of my dad’s copper and his nail punch, making trees or what have you,” Mr. Edwards recalled last Saturday. He has maintained the free-form approach, and does not use forms or templates. There are no mass-produced copies of his work. Each piece is unique. “See those wall hangings with the outline of the Vineyard in the middle? Some of the Island outlines show the Island before the Norton Point breach in 2007 and some after Chappy was cut off,” he said. (In April 2015 the breach filled in, linking Chappy or Chappaquiddick with the mainland again.)

“Yeah, I’ve been working with copper all of my life. This is my dad’s workshop, and these tools are older than I am,” he laughed, gesturing at workbenches in the large space. “Copper workers are few and far between, the way the world is going these days, so it’s something to hold on to,” he said.

“I’ve learned from a circle of people, friends, really, like Travis and his son Nelson Tuck, Scott McDowell and his son Ross McDowell, and others. I’ve studied quite a bit of history of this craft, going back thousands of years to King Tut’s mask, which was formed in the same way as this mask was,” he said, gesturing to a nearby mask of a face.

And on it went during my visit, Mr. Edwards retrieving piece after piece of evocative scenes, from a small boy leading a massive ox, the Island’s beast of burden for hundreds of years, to a large-form piece of a woman surfer just under the wave crest.
Pieces that looked like art. Images that stay in your head. Check them out on Sunday and see what you think.