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Texas sculpture created from metal scraps honors firefighters

Extinguisher is based on a disassembled antique fire extinguisher

By Steve Bennett
The San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — James Hetherington is never happier than when he is rummaging around a scrap yard, excavating the raw materials for his metal sculpture.

“That ring is from a blowout valve,” he says with a grin, pointing out a large silver ring that is an essential element of Extinguisher, his public work recently installed on the grounds of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

The oil-well feature has taken a lot of heat in the news with the recent BP oil spill. A welded assemblage of found-object circular forms coated in weather-proof industrial epoxy of aqua blue and fire-engine red, Extinguisher is based on a disassembled antique fire extinguisher, probably from the 1940s, with spoked wheels and a large tank. Hetherington discovered it at Ashley Salvage here in San Antonio.

“To me, it’s perpetual motion, even though the parts don’t move,” the San Antonio artist said of Extinguisher’s somewhat playful appearance.

A tribute to firefighters, the piece is part of Hetherington’s ongoing series of works paying “Homage to Our Communities.”

These works include Implementation: Homage to Farmers, a re-adaptation of 18th-century farm equipment removed from the John Igo Library site, and Highway: Homage to the Steel Workers, which reuses steel reclaimed from highway construction, compacted into building-block bales and set upon an I-beam from Bethlehem Steel.

“Bethlehem Steel, at one point, provided most of the steel used for highway and bridge building in this country,” says Hetherington, a burly man with shoulder-length dark hair in ringlets and a neatly trimmed moustache who exudes casual authority.

American Backbone, the first sculpture in the series, is “a symbol of strength and permanence” made from assembled standard stock steel drops, he says. It can be seen at Bihl Haus Arts on Fredericksburg Road.

“As I became more involved with public art, I found myself inspired by the workers who have formed the public backbone of our communities,” says Hetherington, a self-taught blacksmith and welder who took up art while studying mechanical engineering in college and subsequently worked as a produce manager, carpenter, plumber, electrician and machine-shop estimator.

The series pays tribute to firefighters and peace officers “for their dedication and sacrifice,” says Hetherington, to farmers for “their commitment to the land and to our sustenance,” and to steelworkers — “welders, ironworkers, and road and bridge builders who constructed the American infrastructure we enjoy today — for their dedication to their trades.”

Extinguisher came to SAMA through the generosity of collectors Anne Marie Valente and Dr. Philip Valente, who own two of the sculptor’s works.

“I was, of course, interested when the Valentes approached us,” says David Rubin, the museum’s contemporary art curator. “I had seen Hetherington’s works around town, and I have also visited his studio. When I was shown an image of Extinguisher, I was quite impressed.

“So much outdoor welded metal sculpture today comes across as just another variation of David Smith, who pioneered the genre in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Extinguisher is also in the tradition of Donald Lipksi (whose iridescent fish swim under an overpass on the Museum Reach of the river) and many of the sculptors who have made provocative work out of found objects.

“The fact that he dedicated it to firefighters also seems significant,” adds Rubin. “It is a sculpture that pleases the eye but is also commemorative.”

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