The works appear somehow both immobile and moving. Offset with the surrounding greenery, their presence demands attention. Densely curved bone-or-tooth-shaped obelisks forged in steel are surrounded by veils of fabricated steel that appear to move around the centerpiece in a vortex of motion. Recently installed on the Cummer Museum’s J. Wayne & Delores Barr Weaver Community Sculpture Garden & Plaza, David Ponsler’s most recent exhibit is a testament to his life as both fine art sculptor and architectural metalworker. Chasing Shadows comprises four pieces that are all 96 inches tall, with an average width and depth of 30-by-30-inches.
“My work is abstract and it’s more emotional, rather than my trying to say a specific thing. Somebody may think it’s figurative but in a very abstract way, but it’s not,” Ponsler tells Folio Weekly from his shop on McDuff Avenue. “It’s basically what I have come up with from being a blacksmith and metalworker for 45 years.”
In the way that his visual art diffuses the ideas and perceptions between artist and audience, Ponsler’s vocation has been one of forging together visual art and functional, architectural pieces. “Usually when I’m asked to describe my art,” says Ponsler, “it’s more of a history lesson of how I got there.”
The passion for marrying fire with materials like iron and steel, fused with tools like anvils and air hammer, is a tradition as much as vocation. “I got started really early. I started welding when I was eight years old,” says Ponsler, with a laugh. “I think I was getting on one of the employee’s nerves and he handed me a welder and a helmet and said ‘do this,’ probably hoping I’d get burned and run away!” The young Ponsler immediately began creating shapes. “The first thing I did was grab these pieces of castoff scraps and started building these little sculptures.”
At the age of 13, Ponsler began exploring the ancient art of blacksmithing. “But at that point I knew no one who was doing it; no one in my family was even doing it,” acknowledges Ponsler. The artist notes that a few pivotal books on the trade were published during that time, which he studied intensely. “I realized that other people were still doing this. It opened up the world.”
During the mid-’70s, while still in his early teens, Ponsler made innumerable railings for Baymeadows complexes during what he describes as “the apartment boom.” While a junior in high school, Ponsler went on a 28-day trip to Europe. Prior to this trip, he’d been only as far afield as North Carolina. The overseas travel offered Ponsler the opportunity to visit many of the major museums on the continent, including the National Gallery of London, Museo del Prado and the Louvre. “That was a real eye-opener,” he says. “And it really kicked off my desire to lean toward creating art.”
In 1982, Ponsler went to his first conference of Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America, where blacksmiths from around the world gathered. There he met European blacksmiths whom he found “inspirational.” Ponsler eventually began traveling to Europe to attend similar conferences. “It’s a very interesting worldwide community.”
While Ponsler describes himself as “totally self-taught,” with the humorous “PhD in Arts Perspective,” his decades-long experience of blacksmithing, metalwork and ongoing study has led to a life of curiosity, true autodidact astute in using ancient trades to make highly contemporary art. His devotion to the work is quasi-religious. Days can go as long as 14 to 16 hours, and working every day of the week is not uncommon, studying these molten metals, forming, hammering and coaxing life from a lifeless material.
“Being a blacksmith means that you’re taking a piece of metal and you’re changing its shape by heating and hammering; that’s technically what forging is,” explains Ponsler. “You have the ability to create something graceful and smooth. Whereas someone who doesn’t do forging is typically called a fabricator, who are cutting and arranging straight materials and putting them together. Which is perfectly valid. But you don’t have the ability to make these crazy, monstrous pieces.”
Ponsler is adept at both skills; the shroud-like veils that seem to zip around the totems of Chasing Shadows are made of fabricated steel. Yet his ultimate relationship is with the near-primal of forging and blacksmithing. And after spending most of his life manipulating and guiding raw metal into original shapes, he’s noticed that each piece can bring its own character, if not identity, into play. “I’ve found that in all my work, especially sculpture, that if there’s just one little kink, an ungrateful section of a line in the form, it keeps rearing its head, in the other forms.”
There’s also a respect at work in having knowledge of the material and a decision to push that very metal to the limit. Set between each piece in Chasing Shadows stands a bronze piece, sculptures that Ponsler made in 2009. “I really asked some outrageous things of those pieces,” says Ponsler, noting that bronze work is usually cast and rarely forged. “I have other metalworkers look at those older pieces and they have no concept of how I came up with them. They usually think it’s more difficult than it actually is. Because it looks fabricated. If you had to take two separate pieces to make those shapes, it would be extremely difficult. But I made those each out of one piece of bronze, exploiting the fact that it’s folded, then forged, and then folded.”
Due to “burnout,” Ponsler left the family business 15 years ago and started his own thriving company, Ponsler Metal & Design. Ponsler’s architectural work is seen locally in places like the staircase in Kickbacks Gastropub in Riverside, the gateway he created for Stockton Park in Ortega, and as far afield as the Bahamas. By his own estimation, he’s been featured in roughly two dozen solo and group fine art exhibits.
The scale, time and material costs for what Ponsler does are not cheap, and he’s vocal in his gratitude for the patronage of both the city of Jacksonville and state of Florida, and organizations like the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, the Schulz Family Foundation, and the Robert D. & Isabelle T. Davis Endowment from the Community Foundation. “They were all crucial in making this new exhibit happen.”
Like many artists working in Northeast Florida, being invited to display his art at the Cummer Museum is quite an honor and homecoming. “I started going to the Cummer when I was in elementary school, so I have a really long history with that museum,” says Ponsler. “I want people to realize that this is a really big honor for me. Growing up in Jacksonville and being an artist and having an exhibition at the Cummer, for me, it doesn’t get any better than this.”