A Man of Steel

There’s a nationally recognized man-of-steel artist in our midst who, through blood, sweat, tears and with well-honed muscles, has dedicated his life and fueled his passion by forging the finest of metals from nature’s bones into ribbons of steel. Jacksonville-based artist David Ponsler is as homegrown as the moss-laden oak he’s portraying in a hand-forged work soon to grace historic Avondale Shopping Center.
This gift by the Avondale Merchants Association (AMA) to the community will be placed across from Biscotti’s. Restaurant owner and AMA VP Karin Tucker says, “We believe in art in public places. It builds community.” The idea for an iconic sculpture to erupt up into the sky from what was originally just another planter came from an Association members’ discussion that the site is to be a destination, a pin on the map, a meeting point, a neighborhood center of activity.
A regional call to artists was sent. Ponsler presented the most engaging proposal, which was approved and commissioned. In September, Ken Stutes, Avondale Artworks founder and AMA member, hosted an unveiling of the final drawings with Ponsler. “Our 32-member Association is forward-thinking, and we believe in supporting local and regional artists,” Stutes says.
The commission, a legacy for Ponsler, is to sculpt a mighty oak tree, a symbol of the Avondale tree canopy, which will be done in steel, a symbol of strength and longevity. Next, the AMA will raise money ($2k) for an integrated lighting system. In October, Ponsler’s sculpture, which is 11’ high by 3 ½’ wide at the top of the bough, will be unveiled.
“I’ve worked in metal since second grade, when I was eight,” Ponsler says. With the help of his welder father, founder of Wonderland Products, little David forged scraps of steel for show and tell. Ponsler broke off from the family business 10 years ago to have his own studio as a solo artist.
“What’s important to me and how I derive pleasure out of the hard work is to ‘step back’ and see it – it’s tangible,” he says. “I’ve been welding for 40 years and have been a blacksmith for 35. It takes a lot of discipline to learn this age-old craft. It’s not suited for everyone.”
Over the decades that Ponsler has been at his craft, clients have brought him into the venerable mansions of the quietly rich and through the doors of collectors and art enthusiasts who understand and appreciate his fine work. His patrons have a visceral connection to the fire–hot steel, bronze, copper, brass and monel…yes, monel, the white metal of choice of the Deco period, that whitish, matte grey on buildings, such as the Chrysler and Empire State in New York, made of copper and nickel and found in only two places on the planet: Sudbury, Canada, and Murmansk, Russia.
Coal-burning forges, sweat swinging in droplets in the air, leather dampened and worn, anvils dinged from times past when forging was a primary vocation – this is the lifeblood of Ponsler, a man of gentle presence, a self-described storyteller and gardener, who is looking for a couple of goats or ducks to shave the weeds in his summer garden, so he can prepare his winter crop. Tongs hang on the side pillars inside his early 20th-century police station studio next to a fire station, where prisoners were once held. Roaring fires are controlled in preparation to forge and cut. Drawings, chalk and sketches are placed for reference on a myriad of tables to glance upon as work progresses. A 6500-pound air hammer “boom, booms” with an ethereal sound like an underground volcanic roar.
Ponsler says it’s a “personal spiritual journey,” one which has even more meaning over time. A few years ago he felt he had reached his pinnacle upon completion of a job in one of the largest houses in this hemisphere; he was burnt out. He needed space to nurture the spiritual connection with the materials he uses and to change his path.
“It’s time for me to really make sculpture now,” he says, as he nears the half-century mark. After the unveiling, he will prepare a one-man show at the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra–-every piece sold in his last show.
The community benefits from having David as part of our cultural thread of artists in Jacksonville’s scene. His sculpture teaches us an age-old, honorable and revered tradition of hard work, perseverance and strength. People will enjoy the special meaning and beauty of his steel tree in a historic district for years to come.