Keith Berner found his ideal job some years ago when he took a position at the Genesee Country Village and Museum, near Lake Ontario in western New York State. “I’ve always enjoyed tools and machinery and understanding how things work,” says Berner. It was during his time at the museum — dedicated to the agricultural history of the Genesee Valley — that he learned of the crafts that any 19th-century landowner had to master to carry out daily tasks, with an emphasis on iron. Soon, he was talking to local blacksmiths and earning a degree in Industrial Modelmaking from Genesee Community College, and not long after, he was teaching a college course himself — in metalworking — and setting up his own shop at home.
Since moving to Hendersonville seven years ago, Berner has been exploring the artistic elements of metal, combining bits of agricultural, automotive, and industrial machinery into distinctive sculptural forms. “I grew up around my grandfather’s farm and have a particular fondness for agricultural parts,” Berner says. “I do seek to find unexpected beauty in items not intended for visual satisfaction. Components are generally designed with the finished machine in mind, to fit the equipment and perform a function. But many components are beautifully designed, and when viewed on their own, it’s easy to take the mundane and make an item of wonderment.”
Harrows, the contraptions harnessed to mules or tractors to break up ground for planting, provide the sharp-edged discs that Berner uses as foundations for wall pieces that include strips of copper or bronze, rivets, and small gears from clocks. “The harsh black background with the gold color from the metal evokes an Asian influence in my work,” Berner says. Larger pieces, up to a foot tall, use semi-circular metal bracing, highly polished, as a ground for the rounded forms of machine gears and cogs.
“In most cases, I disassemble objects such as clocks and machinery into like-sized components, but anything can serve as a component,” he adds. “One of my early lamps uses an upside-down metal strainer as a shade, which radiates small circles of light in patterns. And another lamp uses a series of steel rings, stacked and bolted together, as a sheath that covers the bulb.”
While Berner’s sculptures and collaged smaller pieces have a spontaneity that belies their quotidian sources, each one begins as a random collection of components laid out on the bench. “I usually start with a large structural piece that serves as the central core of the work,” Berner says. “Then I gather an array of appropriately sized components and begin to compose. I continually rearrange and replace pieces until it fits my vision, and sometimes pieces will remain on my workbench for days.”
The path to a well-stocked studio wasn’t an easy one. Back in New York, while he was teaching in college, Berner began building a home shop that was only the beginning in a series of increasingly elaborate ones. “I continued to build my home shop mainly with tools that required me to fix, repair, and sell equipment to buy better tools to start all over again,” Berner recalls. “My wife always claimed I bought tools to repair my existing tools.”
Then came the urge to escape the harsh northern winters, with a search that eventually led to western North Carolina. “We looked for a place that had the perfect climate, gorgeous mountains, and that welcomed and appreciated artists,” Berner says of the decision to settle in Hendersonville. By then, his shop was stuffed with bulky equipment that presented a logistical challenge to relocate: “Trips to move all of my used equipment were endless, but we love living here.”
Since the move, Berner has earned a degree in Professional Crafts from Haywood Community College and continues to take blacksmithing courses to sharpen his skills. Hendersonville’s Open Studio Tour first brought Berner’s sculptures to public attention — exposure that will continue with the fall tour in September. Berner’s also been working with Heidi Mayfield at her Art on the Wall Studios & Gallery to include his pieces in the space’s opening exhibits this summer.
His work, like his journey, has been transformative. “I attempt to look at material and see something other than what it was designed for. As with many that eventually find work they love, it was a long path.”
Keith Berner’s work can be seen locally at Art on the Wall Studios & Gallery in Hendersonville (125 4th Avenue W.) and at the Tryon Painters & Sculptors gallery (78 N. Trade St.). Visit bernermetalworks.com for more information.