Heart of Gold

Heart of Gold

David Huang Radiant Efflorescence #831

Radiant Efflorescence #831, 2010; copper, sterling silver, 23k gold leaf; 2.2 x 1.8 ft. dia.

David Huang

“I struggled with conceptual art in school,” says David Huang, 40, a Michigan-based artist best known for his striking metal vessels with golden interiors. Beverly Seley concurs with this assessment. As his professor when he earned his BFA, she remembers Huang laboring over detailed drawings of figures and flora. “He loved realism,” she recalls. “He loved to draw from life.”

But in 2001, as Huang was busily preparing for his senior show at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, something shifted. By applying his virtuoso metalworking skills, he had already raised a series of lovely vessels, mostly from copper. Yet something looked unfinished to his exacting eye. “I was focused on trying to get the inside lighter than the outside,” he remembers. He experimented with patinas and silver leaf. He finally coated one vessel’s innards with some expensive gold leaf that he had been saving.

“I was just astonished by the gold,” Huang remembers. With the simple gesture, he had landed on a brilliant notion of abstraction – one that affirms the goodness in every person. The lustrous metal, he realized, “created this sacred inner space.”

In addition to being a full-time artist, Huang is a disciplined conservationist with an impressive record of thrift. He uses a composting toilet at his home near Grand Rapids. He recently built an earth-bermed metalsmithing studio – with his own hands. The foundation is made from salvaged auto tires, and the structure is powered entirely by solar panels.

Perhaps most impressive, Huang did without student loans in favor of a scrimp-and-save approach to financing his college education. Sure, it took more than 10 years to complete his bachelor’s degree; on the upside, Huang emerged from Grand Valley with zero debt. Plus, he used the time wisely, experimenting with all manner of mediums along the way.

During college, Huang went from drawing and jewelrymaking to crafting hundreds of hand­made journals with luxurious flourishes such as metalwork hinges and tiny compartments for hiding pencils and other unexpected gems.

The turning point came with a class assignment on furniture making circa 1996. Huang was struck with the inspiration to create five distinct planters. “Terra-cotta didn’t seem quite right. They needed to be copper,” he remembers.

Using techniques he had picked up as a young jeweler, he endeavored to raise a series of vessels of varying sizes, coaxing and hammering sheets of copper into three-dimensional forms. He combined the planters with simple wooden shelves and greenery, but in the end Huang’s metalwork was the highlight of the assemblage.

“The planters were absolutely beautiful,” Seley recalls. “He did chase and repoussé along the sides, almost like ceramic panels.”

Hooked thereafter on metalwork, Huang was soon crafting the first generation of his now-signature metal vessels. “The first ones really were multi-node, raising off of more than one point,” he says. As they evolved, they assumed more rounded silhouettes. Many resemble acorns with the caps popped off. Others are shaped more like lemons or bullets.

The early vessels were larger, too – about the size of a basketball. Now the average vessel is “roughly the size of a grapefruit,” says Mike Holmes, co-owner of Velvet da Vinci gallery in San Francisco. Holmes counts Huang among his most popular artists. “Whenever possible I take out the vessels and put them in people’s hands.”

The vessels come in two styles and, according to Holmes, buyers are usually attracted to one of the two. Either they like the smooth ones with the earthy patinas – “they look like stone or moss,” Holmes says – or they gravitate to those with elaborate copper or silver chasing designs.

“These show off David’s metalsmithing abilities,” says Holmes. “They have swirling lines and patterns to highlight areas of high and low.”  

No matter the style, every vessel has the same golden interior, shining so brightly that gallery-goers are apt to assume Huang is cheating, perhaps by tucking a tiny led under the lip. Because the glow is so powerful, so molten and shimmering, it takes an extra minute to accept their natural beauty and warmth.

“I see the vessels as metaphors for people,” explains Huang. A shy and introverted person by his own admission, Huang is always pleased when someone discovers the likable character residing beneath his own protective skin. The vessels represent his belief that every person – every body – contains similar virtues. “We all have this shell holding our inner spirit,” Huang says. “We all have this light within.”

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. She covers arts, culture, and travel.