Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I’m pretty sure that I leave a part of myself in everything I make, but some things get to keep more of me than others.  Those are the things that leave me, as a buddy says, a shell of my former shell.  They are the things that have a specific destiny before I even begin them.  

I don’t remember how I started, but I make urns.  I think I probably thought I was just making fancy boxes, but they became something more.  And up until now I have never made one for a specific situation or person.  I didn’t think it would be so difficult to do.  This particular urn was commissioned by a relative of mine for her sister who after a lifetime of fighting was succumbing to pancreatic cancer.  And here I am going to have to admit that human dynamics are a mystery to me.  I just mostly don’t understand people.  People have talked to me about custom urns and I have sold urns that weren’t made for a specific purpose, or should I say, person, but most people don’t seem to want to spend much on . . . ashes?  And as I write this I am still waiting to hear if the children will approve of the urn I made or not. 

Two sisters born over eighty years ago and the older one still wants to protect and care for, maybe even touch, her sibling one last time.  But maybe she won’t be allowed to after all.  So you can see how tricky this was for me.   

First I had to find a way to design a vessel that would pay tribute to a woman who, among other things, had twice defeated breast cancer thirty years apart, had raised four successful and productive children, had been the city desk editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times for many years starting at a time when women weren’t supposed to work.  This is a woman who deserves respect and admiration.  Love is a given.  The urn, though, was also to house her husband’s remains.  He too had died of cancer.  And all of this had to satisfy everyone.  

I know what you are thinking. How hard could this be?

Yeah, cake.  I made about thirty cardboard mock ups.  All sorts of shapes, flowers, plants, all the things these people enjoyed.  It wasn’t really coming to me.  Sometimes it’s intuitive and you have to let go before you can find it.  So finally I had an idea that I thought would work and I started to build the urn. 

The urn itself would be a combination of metals.  Yeah, I know.  Any couple is made up of two individuals and with luck the combination is transcendent.  So I chose aluminum and steel.  Two very different metals, one light weight and color, one dark and heavy.  The canister would be aluminum and most of the framing and detail would be steel.  This was incredibly generous of me because I don’t like to work with aluminum.  I particularly don’t like to weld aluminum.  Or grind it.  Or breathing its fumes.(I wear a respirator)  I made the canister aluminum anyway.   A hexagon that had to be seam welded.  Truly I must love somebody. 

Aluminum is difficult.  It’s unforgiving and it’s sneaky.  There are a number of ways to weld aluminum.  I use a TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welder, or heliarc. The name heliarc apparently comes from using a helium combination as the shielding gas.  I use pure argon.  So I don’t think I can call what I do heliarc.  Anyway, aluminum is a heat dissipater.  This means it gets hot all over and can suddenly decide to become liquid and because it’s aluminum it doesn’t change color with heat.  It’s always the same color.  Relentlessly.  It’s really easy to burn yourself.  Aluminum also needs to be really clean to weld and it’s not always easy to tell that it isn’t clean.  So if you are going to try this at home, be sure to clean the aluminum surface before welding.  That milky stuff is oxide.  Aluminum rust. Sometimes you can see it.  Sometimes you can’t see it.  Either way it will mess up your weld.  As I said, aluminum is not easy.
Aluminum seam weld

Aluminum seam weld
Because I wanted to fit the canister into the steel frame, I had to grind the welds.  Aluminum is gummy and, as you can see by the video, there are no sparks.  It just clogs up the grinding disc. 

If you are wondering why I cut and welded rather than bent, there are two reasons.  The first is I didn’t have a large sheet of aluminum.  I had scraps from another project.  The second reason is I probably can’t do the math.  I haven’t tried but you only get one chance with aluminum so this way was safer.  Also I don’t have sheet metal tools.  No brakes or shears. See, bad math.  That was three reasons.

I wanted the frame around the canister to be steel.  And I guess the interesting thing about this, as I tell it, is that by comparison steel is easy.  It’s forgiving and it’s straight forward.  I also use a TIG welder when I weld aluminum but that’s just because I like it.   

Fitting parts

Clamping for a snug fit
 The frame was mostly about fitting though, and once I had the outside done, I moved on to the base and lid.  As far as I know, you cannot weld aluminum to steel so in the places where they needed to be attached to each other I used bolts or screws.  Then I did the coloring.  I brushed the aluminum and blackened the steel with heat in the forge.

Fitting base
Fitting lid

Heating to color steel
I am happy with the juxtaposition of metals in this piece and I am happy with the other small comments and tributes that are hidden in the form.  I hope that it will be well received.  I hope that it gives comfort.  And ultimately, I hope that it manages to be a visual reminder of a life beautifully and well lived.  To Joy.  Aptly named.


 Now, back to work.


  1. That is absolutely beautiful. Yes, I think "Joy" is an appropriate name for this work of art.

  2. You're so awesomely talented Ms. Gilbert. :)