Eric Steenlage, an orthopedic surgeon from Atlanta, Georgia, represents a great fusion of multiple interests in handwork. Trained as a metalworker, then as a doctor, he’s developed both skill sets in parallel, and occasionally in tandem. His instructor Jon Shearin relates that in their class slide show, Erik showed complex metal armatures he’s designed and constructed to aid in surgery, and offered to share a prototype he’s developing from an orthopedic surgical clamp, modified to ease the difficulty of holding multiple pieces in place when forging complicated ironworks.
“Due to some family situations, I ended up dropping out of school when I was pretty young. I went to welding school when I was 16, and worked in construction – a lot of metal work, driving truck, pouring concrete, a lot of different things. I didn’t do anything artistic, but I built some trailers, did metal work for structures and buildings. It was hard enough work that it definitely motivated me to go back to school. So I eventually got my GED, then went to college, and decided to go into medicine. I went to medical school and kind of left all the metalworking stuff behind. I was always interested in artistic stuff, but I felt that with my background, I needed something a little safer, a little more predictable than trying to make a living as an artist. Then in my last year of medical school, I met a metal sculptor. He had worked in industry and then retired early with the financial means to support himself as an artist, which gave him some liberty. I went back into the welding a little bit, and started trying to get more creative, doing some ornamental furniture, and made a couple of nonfunctional pieces which, for me, were a big leap, because if you’re making something nonfunctional, it has to stand on its own as art.
“Throughout my medical training – six years after medical school – each place I went, I tried to find a metal shop, or the art department, somewhere to experiment a little bit on stuff that was more creative. I moved to Atlanta when I finished, and didn’t have anywhere to do any metal work, but I wanted to be creating something, so I tried blowing glass for about a year. I met some people in the arts community in Atlanta, and the folks at the metal supply shop referred me to Julia Woodman, because they knew I was interested in getting back into metal work.
“The hardest thing for me was time, my schedule. I do orthopedic surgery, specializing in trauma, so it’s very unpredictable, with weird hours and so forth. Julia was very helpful; she was very flexible, and let me come to use her studio when I could. I took some informal lessons from her, and helped her do some commissioned projects she was working on – kind of an apprenticeship sort of situation.
“She was always talking about Penland; she’s been here many times as a teacher and a student. A year ago, I was driving through the area with my brother. We were hiking and visiting Civil War battle sites – we’re both kind of Civil War nuts – and she was here taking a class, so we made a detour to visit her. I was only here for a few hours, but definitely saw the appeal of the place and started making plans to take a class sometime in the future. Then she told me a few months ago that she would be here this summer, taking a class from Jon Shearin. I figured it would be a doubly beneficial experience to take a class and do it when she was here. The biggest challenge for me was trying to find a way to block out two weeks; it took me a year and I almost did it. I had to go back to Atlanta for a couple of days in the middle of the class, and I regret having to take that time away.
“It’s been a great experience. I like the isolation, I like the fact that you’re kind of forced to be here and be present here. Almost as much as the class itself, I think the aspect of a retreat, of time away from my “real” life, appeals to me. If I came back again, I’d want to take a class in something I don’t know anything about. I took iron because I wanted to get better and learn new skills, but in retrospect, I probably also took it because it’s safer for me, it’s something I know. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was going around to other studios. I must have spent half my time going around, talking to other people in their studios, asking “What are you doing,” and “How are you making that?”
“It’s such a beautiful setting – I loved just sitting and eating lunch with that beautiful view. It’s a relaxing escape from the way you normally are, and hopefully you can take some of that back with you. You also realize how little you really need. I functioned just fine without 99% of the normal crap that I have at home. And I’m impressed by all of the talent here – I’ve seen things here that I understand and appreciate, and things that I really don’t understand but can appreciate for the skill involved, and other things that I don’t get at all – it’s all people out there pushing the envelope, which I think is really important.
“I’m looking forward to coming back.”