Former policeman says injury was a blessing in disguise.
With a new city arts commission and an active artistic community, you don’t have to look far to find fine art in Santa Clarita. Just ask Dean Hess, who sells his intricately detailed copper and bronze sculptures all over the country, each of which is handcrafted from his workshop right here in our hometown.
Hess says he has been interested in copper work since 1985 when he sold his first piece, a model of a Model T Ford. He was 14 years old. He learned the art from his father, who has been creating similar pieces for more than 40 years. And now with 24 years of practice himself, Hess has turned to sculpture full-time.
Though it’s been a lifelong passion, he arrived at it somewhat by accident. After spending 13 years as a Glendale city police officer, a lower back injury earned him a medical retirement. But Hess says being forced off the force wasn’t an end, but a beginning.
“It made things a lot easier knowing that I had this to fall back on and it actually turned out to be a blessing,” he said. “It kind of forced me into doing something that I probably should have been doing all along.”
He begins first with sheet copper, folding and hammering it into shape. Bronze braising rods are then melted into place to add structure and detail.
His only other material is recycled from old electrical cables. He melts the spiraling copper wires down drop by drop to create unique shapes and colors. This technique allows him to create the multi-colored fall foliage for tree sculptures. A typical tree includes approximately 130 leaf clusters, each comprised of about 80 drops each. That’s a total of 10 to 12 thousand drops per tree.
Hess creates color and shading by varying the amount of heat on each element of the piece. This affects the level of oxidation the metal undergoes. The resulting patinas (the surface films produced by aging, weathering, or in this case, being blasted by white-hot acetylene) range from the natural shiny copper to green or blue. The same basic principle gives the Statue of Liberty, which is also made of copper, its green hue. Hess’ works are coated with acrylic to lock the shades in place.
Hess says he prices his work based on both the time involved and the personal value to him. A piece that takes 20-25 hours to complete may go for around $800. Some of his larger pieces take up to 50 or more hours to finish.
He is currently working on his ‘island collection’ of tropical-themed scenes. Each scene will ultimately be replicated 100 times, but Hess says he never casts any aspect of his work for duplication; each copy is completely hand-worked from scratch.
“If I were to cast the pieces, to me I would lose a lot of my passion for making the piece,” said Hess. “I prefer to do it entirely by hand so that each piece is unique to itself.”