More than 
a lot of steel

David Briggs
Blacksmith Dan Breaux (left) and ironworker Victor Stangenberg (right) have transformed their longtime trades into an art form. Their metal sculptures will be featured at Toby’s Gallery through Friday, September 29. 
09/01/2011

With the exception of the tomatoes, the ingredients in metalworker Victor Stangenberg’s salads are grown in his multi-tiered hillside garden at the top of the Inverness Ridge. 

His lunches, consisting of several homemade courses, are not a bohemian lapse in an otherwise humdrum existence; Stagenberg’s life and, by extension, his sculptures, which will be featured next month at Toby’s Gallery alongside work by Nicasio artist Dan Breaux, are outlandishly whimsical. 

“I have everything here,” said Stangenberg, 70. “Why should I pay $30 for a dinner which I can do here for three, four bucks and probably healthier?” 

A native of Germany, Stangenberg had his first glimpse of the Bay Area while steering a 10,000-ton Swedish freighter dubbed WR Lundgreen under the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun rose over the Oakland hills in 1964. “It was a sight to be seen,” said Stangenberg, who has a mop of white hair and a horseshoe mustache. “It was amazing. And I said, ‘Hey, this is a great place. I think here I could live.’”

In San Francisco, Stangenberg began an illustrious union career as an ironworks and construction foreman. His more notable projects included the 61-story Transamerica Pyramid, the 48-story Hilton Tower and the 3.6-mile BART tube from San Francisco to Oakland. While he completed ironworks projects in the city, he also began exploring its open art studios on dates with girlfriends. 

“I got more and more interested in the metal arts,” he said. “Then I looked at it and I say, ‘Hey, I could do this stuff myself. It’s not that difficult.’”
By the time Stangenberg, who remains spry despite his age, relocated to West Marin, in 1988, he was ready to turn his career into an art. He enrolled in his first and only sculpture class at the College of Marin, which was taught that year by Bolinas artist Rick Hall. Soon Stangenberg had thrown aside clay for welding machines, and his metalworking skills and imagination let loose.    

“Working in construction, which I very much enjoyed, … you had very little leeway of being creative because everything was, you know, laid out for you,” he said. “But in making sculptures, I was in total control. I didn’t have anybody dictating what or how I should make it.”
His large, often life-sized, welded scrap metal figures and abstractions, some painted and others left to rust for effect, are scattered throughout his sloped one-acre property. Their irregular shapes and jaunty appearances give the landscape the air of an adult playground. 

Some pieces are functional—like a metal chair with tree limbs for armrests—while others are descriptive, like the blowtorch sketch of a whale bedecked with crabbing floats. His materials range from charred garden tools destroyed in the Mount Vision fire to objects found on the roadside. 

Much like his work life, which at times included long strings of projects followed by short periods of unemployment, Stangenberg’s artistic life is one of fits and starts and intermittent waves of inspiration. He does not sketch out his plans. 

“All of a sudden I have an idea, and I have a lot of scrap metal there,” Stangenberg said. “And then I take a few pieces out and look at them. And then it grows very organically, very naturally. So once I’m totally into it, it’s almost like a form of meditation. You kind of get lost in a project and just keep going.” 

A self-proclaimed pagan who attempts to live as close to nature as he can, Stangenberg often includes the lucky horseshoe symbol and certain Native American motifs in his work. But that’s about as serious as he gets. He has eluded high-concept stuffiness in favor of an accessible and playful style. 

Stangenberg’s gallery partner and friend, Dan Breaux, a dark-haired man with an olive complexion, forges smaller, more intricate wrought-iron sculptures that are far starker in tone. He cites Julio Gonzalez, Picasso’s sculpture collaborator, as one of his primary influences. 

Equally as affable but more reserved, Breaux, 63, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. After college he explored the Pacific Northwest, living in Washington for a year before settling into a ranching job in Nicasio. “This is as far south as I wanted to go in California,” he said. “I didn’t want to get any closer to LA.” 

Farrier Hoby Wright taught him how to forge horseshoes, which involves bending and shaping steel with an anvil and hammer. Breaux’s work as a blacksmith gradually stirred up more inventive projects. His first simple sculpture was forged from a railroad spike. 

Many of his current pieces, which are intended for interior rather than exterior display, explore the fusion of industry and nature. In one such piece, “The Angry Prophet,” an iron figure stands on a rock surface while holding up a horse’s jawbone. Other pieces include an elaborate music stand and a BMW crankshaft that supports a hollowed tree trunk. 

The forged work varies significantly from Stangenberg’s lighthearted welded amalgamations, and their juxtaposition in the upcoming exhibit should prove stimulating for viewers. “When we first got together, I thought …it was going to be too much steel,” Breaux said. “Then I found out we do different stuff.”

“I think people will enjoy it to see the contrast,” Stangenberg added. 

Their enthusiasm was evident as they poured over a heap of junk outside Breaux’s workshop, which his supportive neighbors have allowed him to use for free. Breaux offered Stangenberg a rusty gear to take home. 

“Now, that’s an industrial art,” Breaux said. 

“Yes, absolutely,” Stangenberg said. 

“And that, by itself, is perfect,” Breaux replied. 

An artists’ reception for Victor Stangenberg and Dan Breaux will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, September 3 at Toby’s Gallery, in Point Reyes Station. The exhibit shows through September 29.