NOVOCASTRIANS have long known what they can do with steel.
After all, generations of residents have forged a career and a way of life from the material. Newcastle extruded a nickname from it: Steel City.
Yet local sculptor Braddon Snape has literally reshaped how people view steel.
Never mind Superman. This artistic man of steel welds pieces of the material, then he pumps and plumps the parcel with pressurised air, inflating it like a balloon.
Snape calls the result “action sculpture”. Unlike most methods of sculpting that sees something gradually take shape over time, “this thing forms before your eyes”.
“It’s kind of this bundle of stored energy,” Snape explains. Which is kind of like what Snape is at the moment, as he prepares for his exhibition at The Lock-Up gallery in Newcastle East.
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The exhibition is titled Internal Pressure. It features Snape’s gleaming pieces of inflated steel, some pinned under industrial props, giving the impression they are about to burst, while others are trussed against the wall in the former police station cells.
The artworks are eye-popping. How they are made is mind-blowing, and a little scary, as you imagine what could happen if the sculpture goes “pop!” - or “BANG!”.
“In simple terms, it’s not as scary as it could be,” assures Snape, as he sips on a blood orange juice. “I’ve had a couple of little blow-outs.”
The day before the exhibition’s opening, the artist himself is grace under pressure, as he takes time out for lunch of bacon and eggs at Moor cafe to talk about the delicate art of inflating steel.
“It was [TV program] MythBusters that introduced me to it,” he says. The experiment on TV didn’t go so well, he recalls. The steel parcel blew up. But in the process, so did Snape’s imagination about sculpting with steel.
“My thoughts were, ‘If I could inflate it, I’d get pieces of steel that had compound curves, and then potentially I could cut those sections out and use those to make more lyrical kinds of sculptures, I guess,” he recalls.
“In that moment I inflated one, it just set me off on this whole path.”
BRADDON Snape wasn’t one of those kids who loved blowing things up. Although he did almost burn down the family home at Valentine, when he set fire to a mound of dry grass on a neighbouring vacant block.
“I haven’t incorporated fire much!,” he says about the influence of that moment on his preferred sculpting methods.
The element that defined Braddon’s boyhood was not fire but water. He was born by Lake Macquarie, at Belmont, in 1968. His father is the renowned yachtsman Bob Snape. From a young age, Braddon was sailing and messing about in boats on the lake and over the horizon.
“I did my first Sydney-to-Hobart with Dad when I was 17,” he says. “I’ve done six. I’ve retired from that now!”
The sea, and an early life spent sailing, helped form the sculptor Snape would become. Out on the water, he was surrounded by constantly shifting shapes in nature: waves, clouds, sunlight on the surface.
Back on land, Snape was involved in helping build and repair boats, and rigging them for sailing. He learnt manual skills and fell in love with the clean lines of hulls.
“Being around boats and watercraft certainly informed my interest in form, and my interest in that minimalist kind of form,” Snape muses. “I think that was a big influence on the way I see things.
“And particularly as a sculptor, you’ve got to have an understanding of the properties of materials, and also a sense of the engineering.”
As a teenager, while his head was being filled with the raw materials for a career in sculpting, that path didn’t enter his mind. The Belmont High student saw a future in architecture or engineering, perhaps a trade; something that allowed him to make things.
“I started getting fairly depressed about the world halfway through Year 11 and decided it was kind of pointless and didn’t want to go to school,” he recalls. “The only thing I was interested in were the art-making side of things”.
Bob Snape arranged for his son to speak with a teaching colleague, who mentioned the possibility of going to Newcastle Art School: “It wasn’t on the radar. I didn’t really know there was an art school in town!”
The 17-year-old attended art school, relishing in “making stuff”. But Snape was still unsure where he fitted into the world of art, or how art fitted into his life.
“I had this sense in my head, I didn’t want to be influenced by anybody. I wanted to do my own thing. I lived in a vacuum.”
He completed art school. Snape called himself an artist, but he was making a living working on TV aerials, while also spending a lot of time sailing. Even so, he was doing enough sculpting to be noticed.
The matriarch of the arts in Newcastle, Anne Von Bertouch, exhibited Snape’s work in her Cooks Hill gallery, which doubled as his wedding venue in 1997.
He married his high school sweetheart, Shellie-Rae, in a surprise ceremony. Family and friends were suddenly guests: “They all thought they were coming to a special viewing.”
When their children, twins Bella and Blake, were born in 2001, Snape decided it was time to either drop sculpting or embrace it.
“When I was younger, I thought I deserved a career and then realised, ‘Hang on, it doesn’t work way’,” Snape recalls. “The kids were the turning point.
“It was just a different attitude, taking it more seriously, committing to exhibitions, being more earnest with the work.”
But not just any work. Snape had been creating bronze abstract figures that sold quite well, but he didn’t want to keep sculpting just for the money. That wasn’t the point to him.
“The point was to keep growing and exploring and looking for that new thing, the new way of seeing and understanding things,” he says.
“I’d rather not make any money from my art and teach or work in a cafe or whatever than produce work just because I know it’s going to sell. Sometimes you waver through your career!”
Snape’s resolve was strengthened when he received a commission from Newcastle Art Gallery by then director Nick Mitzevich (now the boss of the National Gallery of Australia) - “Things like that say to you, ‘Well, people must think you’re ok’.”
He called that work Negotiating the Void, which in some respects is what he has been doing pursuing a career in sculpting in Australia.
Snape has negotiated the financial void through hard work. Recognition has come from major exhibitions, such as Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney.
There have also been important public art commissions, including the 2005 installation, A Drop in the Ocean, at Linwood, and, more recently, the Clouds Gathering sculpture at the Riverlink building in Maitland.
Snape believes there is a need for more public art in Newcastle, “not just for my sake but for the community”.
Despite all the building development, there is still comparatively little public art. And, Snape argues, what is being installed often has the look of being “bought off the shelf”. Those works often have “no response to the site, no significance. So that’s disappointing.”
The Newcastle arts community, he says, has “got to be louder”.
“We have to somehow engage with the people with the money in town to actually seriously support the arts, arts organisation and the arts community, and individual artists.
“They’ll go to Sydney to spend big money on someone they’re told is good, when they’ve got the same kind of artists here.”
As a young man he may have operated in a vacuum, but Braddon Snape is now very much a part of the local arts community. He helps nurture it.
A couple of years ago, he set up the The Creator Incubator, a collaborative arts space breathing new life into old buildings in Hamilton North. Snape chuckles that his role is the “benevolent dictator”, with 25 artists and designers sub-letting studios.
Snape is also a teacher of sculpture. He has lectured at the art school where he learnt and, in recent years, has been teaching at the University of Newcastle.
That has not just given him an income outside of sculpting, it has also allowed him to collaborate with other artists, to continue learning.
“You can’t live in a vacuum,” he says. “Everything influences you. The more you open yourself up to things, the better you’re going to be. The more informed you are, the more you can understand what’s out there and learn from it, and then you’ve got more chance of going off in a new direction.”
Such as inflating steel. As well as being a lecturer at university, Braddon Snape is also a student. He is currently finishing his doctorate. Initially, his area of study for the PhD revolved around public art - “then the inflation thing happened”.
A few years ago, Snape was talking with a colleague in the uni’s sculpture workshop about inflating steel. His colleague replied, “Well, you’re doing research. Let’s give it a go. I’ll buy some steel and we’ll do it.”
With the first attempt, Snape popped the steel: “The adrenaline was going for a quite a while after that!”
“It was kind of so invigorating and scary for the first few times, as you can imagine,” he says. “But gradually I got to know the process.”
The publicity for the exhibition at The Lock-Up refers to the making of Snape’s “action sculpture” as “a delicate dialogue between control and chance”.
That description, I say to the sculptor, could apply to not just his art but our lives. Snape agrees. It’s one reason why he loves inflating steel.
With so much of his earlier work, he says, he knew exactly how it would turn out.
“The act of making then was just labour, whereas with the act of making this, you’re in the moment,” Snape explains. “You know some stuff, but you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
“It’s about being more relaxed as well. What’s wrong with not having control? Go with it, learn to understand it!”