Artist Profile Story by Randi Jo Gause
A plasma cutter, a blow torch and a power hammer may not sound like artist tools, but Mark Witteveen has found his artistic niche in slicing, welding and hammering out captivating metal sculptures the same way a painter crafts a masterpiece using brushstrokes.
"I think metal artwork is different because of its three-dimensional capability, and the luster and shininess of metal is difficult to reproduce in any other medium," describes Witteveen. "It has a motion and depth that almost has a life of itself."
Witteveen discovered the allure of metal while working on a boat repair project in 2002. When a friend introduced him to basic welding techniques allowing him to craft a custom attachment for his seine skiff, his imagination was sparked. He then purchased a plasma cutter on a whim, a tool he now wields like an expert. At first, he began welding items that had practical applications, but as with all great love affairs, he discovered his passion without ever looking for it. "I stumbled into the artistic part," he muses. "I think that art really followed mechanical."
"There is something so cool about metal," he effuses. "It can bend and be thinned and thickened with a plastic quality. You can attach two pieces together and they aren't just fastened together, they are one piece. When you heat it, you can achieve myriad colors."
Due to the archaic tools and equipment used to manipulate metal, Witteveen was largely self-taught, but he honed his skills with the help of local welders, and by attending metal workshops across the country. "Metal shaping is certainly my signature technique. It generally involves big equipment and specific knowledge that is largely unknown in this day and age of manufacturing," he explains.
His first artistic endeavor resulted in a flat, two-dimensional fish, which evolved into crafting more elaborate, three-dimensional fish that are now some of his most popular items. Since then, he has expanded his resume to include an array of fish, octopus, birds and whales – all coming alive in sheet steel, aluminum, brass and copper.
To create such anatomically correct marine sculptures, Witteveen draws from his background in biology and a lifetime spent commercial and sport fishing. He holds a master's degree in fisheries science and has nearly 18 years working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This background, he says, "helps give my sculptures a unique sense of realism, and capture Alaska's strong connection to the ocean."
To spur his creativity, Witteveen looks no further than his own backyard in Kodiak. "There is an endless challenge for me to capture nature in artwork," he says. "I draw inspiration from my life with the ocean. It is the mainstay of many Alaskans and I think that is why my art appeals to a wide variety of people."
He's even tread new ground through experimentation. "There are so many processes that can be used, and I am always learning," he adds. "Like most metal artists, I have developed many of my own processes, and have made many custom tools to try to make metal do what I want."
Much of his work is comprised of individually crafted sculptures designed for home displays, but he has gained even greater exposure after being commissioned by local businesses to create display artwork. Among them is an elaborate map of Afognak Island featured in the Afognak Native Corporation headquarters in Anchorage. Made up of 165 individually layered pieces, the design accounts for every topography change of 500 feet, culminating in a meticulously detailed interpretation of the island. "I strived to make the coastline very accurate. It was especially rewarding when I finished it, as many people described experiences they'd had around Afognak pointing to a specific tiny cove where they had anchored during a winter storm."
Witteveen's ability to mimic Alaska elements in his artwork, with both scientific precision and artistic flare, has struck a chord with people on many levels. "My work has an industrial side that appeals to the mechanical or construction type of person, but also is colorful and has a fluid movement that appeals to people's artistic side."