The Demmer/Neptune Gate Project
by Eric Moebius
The Demmer/Neptune Gate Project represents a unique experience in contemporary blacksmithing. The collaboration of three artists with very different styles and experiences was the major hurdle to cross. During the early discussions of design and scope of the project we began to discover a working relationship. Blacksmiths are by nature very independent creatures and we all develop different paths to a finished piece of work.
The design process began with the basic outline provided by Villa Terrace and Dennis Buettner, the landscape architect. The budget and scope of the project was laid out and we set about coming up with design concepts. Dan and Tom submitted some design concepts, some of which were from resource books on the Italian Renaissance. In February of 2000, I submitted a complete design to the team. We unanimously decided to proceed with that design. The design incorporated certain elements from the previous sketches. I produced a large presentation drawing and we submitted the design to the Villa Terrace board. They approved the design and we were given the go- ahead on this project.
My long experience at producing architectural projects and gatework determined that I would forge the entire framework and the gates. I would be creating the spaces for the decorative elements to be done by Tom and Dan.
In the summer of 2000, Moebius Iron works began the project as general contractor.
Full-scale drawings and mock-ups were made of the entire piece. The challenge of making the frame and having the overall look blend with the very intricate design elements was incredible. Each bar had to be heated, hammered, textured and welded together. Although modern welding techniques were used, I wanted the joints to have a soft, rounded feel with no sharp corners. After three months we completed the frames and were able to give Dan and Tom exact spaces and dimensions for their work. I consider the framework to be the most difficult part to accomplish.
In November, Tom and Dan began work on their respective parts. I was able to begin the gates and the curved sections between the columns. Now the fun part began — the gate! I have 25 years of experience in traditional gate construction and find this type of work to be very rewarding. The gate frames are joined using a method called mortise and tenon construction. This traditional technique was used before modern welding methods were invented. The joints are the same as those used in woodworking. A mortise (a rectangular hole) is punched through the bar edgewise with a hammer and chisel while the metal is yellow hot. A corresponding tenon is forged on the end of the joining piece which fits the hole exactly. When put together at a 90 degree angle, the tenon goes through and beyond the mortise hole and is heated and hammered down to form a rivet head. This joint is unbreakable and gives the viewer another element to wonder about.
The entire gate framework with its unique joining methods can be done in only one way. This technique involves working with handheld tools, chisels and a blacksmith striker. When working on the anvil, the master smith holds the heated bar and places the hand tools on the spot that requires work.
The striker uses a large sledge hammer to hit the tool doing the work. This is fast and furious work which requires a total understanding of what is happening by both smith and striker. It is too fast for verbal directions so the smith and his striker develop a combination of signals between them. I am lucky to have 25 years of working with the most talented striker in blacksmithing, my brother Jeffrey Moebius.
The curved sections of the frame included making the twisted bars, the lower quatrefoils and the branches at the top. The twisted bars were done by heating sections and locking one end of the bar in a large vise. A special twisting bar grabs the opposite end and twisting is accomplished by sheer physical strength. The lower quatrefoils were done in a style using small collars (bands) put on the two pieces to be joined. The collars are hot and as the metal cools it shrinks to hold tight. The upper branches were a joy to make. The large leaves are all hot-forged by hand. Leaf-making requires reverse thinking. First you must see the leaf in its final form in your mind and then work back to how the flat pattern will look. Pattern making takes many years of work experience to understand how the metal moves.
Through the winter and spring, work continued on various decorative elements. I worked on the two vases to go into the central columns.
The final phase was to make all of the elements and leaves that went into the gates. The vertical bars with the ball form were forged using a tool I made to use on my Nazel forging power hammer. The forging of the 72 leaves for the gates was done using hammers, bottom tools and forms. The hot forging of leaves allows the artist to manipulate the forms and shapes to create shadows and a natural look. The overall effect is very dramatic.
There is a great deal of symbolism attached to the various elements in this design. The curved sections will draw you closer and allow you to enter the ironwork. The gate is not saying “Keep Out!” because the curved sections are like outstretched arms inviting you to enter. The outside columns incorporate some organic forms (leaves) but are mainly traditional ironwork forms. The inside columns use the vase to symbolize the Earth, the source of all life. The vertical element shows the growing plants transitioning to the trident. The trident points the way to the aquatic world and obviously relates to our Great Lake. The figure of Neptune on the inside of the gate with the lake as a backdrop is the visual treat for entering the garden. I wanted to use the most realistic plant forms on the lower portion of the gates to reflect the plantings in the garden. As you move to the top, the forms become more stylized as a transition to the world of Neptune.
I have had the pleasure of working on and looking at the Demmer/Neptune Gate for more than a year. I am thrilled that the installation is in such a beautiful public site. I am looking forward to visiting the gates in the changing seasons. The three of us have put much more than time and muscle into this piece. This is our effort to create a new benchmark for ironwork in the 21st Century.
I want to thank the Villa Terrace board for the opportunity to work on this project. We are very honored that the Demmer Foundations have provided the financial backing for these gates as a gift to the Milwaukee community. Special thanks to the team at Moebius Ironworks for their input and exceptional work on the Demmer/Neptune Gate.