Makers Series: Metal artists in Midland transforming everyday materials

Metal and chain, dust and a crane – in our third edition of Midland Makers, we are happy to provide a glimpse behind two of the city’s well-known artists who happen to work predominantly with metal.

Jim Ardis in his workshop in Midland.

Jim Ardis of Ardis Art

“It’s like a fever, it just takes hold.”

That’s how Jim Ardis describes his path into what has been a long and fulfilling artistic career. He started out as an accountant in Saginaw working for the school system and didn’t find it rewarding. Ardis was taking art classes at the time on the side and a friend asked if he could store his pottery wheel at Ardis’ place.

A large copper bass that Ardis is currently working on.

His craft started with coffee cups and dinnerware at first. Eventually, he took to experimenting with the wheel more and more, which got him hooked on creating. Borrowing that pottery wheel has turned into decades of stunning creations, working with mainly clay, copper and other metals.

You’ve likely come across Ardis’ work without even knowing it – his hands are responsible for the detail and craftsmanship behind many commissioned pieces in Midland including: the six-foot tall copper medallions for the City of Midland flanking the US-10 bridge on Eastman Road, the copper sign at the Community Center, the tall bronze statue of Jesus inside Trinity Lutheran Church on Jefferson Avenue, the burial garden statues at First United Methodist Church in Downtown Midland and many more.

A finished copper piece hangs inside the Ardis Art studio.

Or you could have been a past student, as Ardis spent many years teaching classes as Midland Center for the Arts.

A self-admitted “nut” for architecture, his favorite piece currently is the statue he created that you’ll find in Grove Park – which is also coincidently Midland’s newest public art piece – though he readily admits his favorite piece changes week to week.

A mini replica of the crane recently installed in Grove Park in Midland.

“I’ve never mixed copper with stainless steel in a piece before and so that was a new challenge mixing the two materials,” says Ardis. “I love the way they play off each other in the crane piece, with both the cool and warm textures.”

The crane in Grove Park took four months to complete and was quite difficult to assemble. Connecting steel to copper requires the connections to be insulated and attached a certain way, because without it would cause galvanic corrosion, where the copper would corrode prematurely. The crane required meticulous assembly by Ardis so that in every instance, each bolt only comes into contact with one material and not the other.

Jim working on the large copper bass in his studio.

As for his ever-changing favorite, Ardis explains he enjoys the challenge of creating something new. “I love the pieces that push my boundaries creatively and conceptually create original ways for me to experiment with materials, angles and designs,” says Ardis.

The process usually starts with a sketch, then a small-scale model, made from either clay that Ardis makes himself, cardboard or other materials if it’s a larger piece. For the smaller pieces, Ardis forms a scaled-down version in clay that he can work with. He makes his working model clay to be 75 percent clay and 25 percent wax so that it is malleable for some time, allowing him to tweak as needed over many months.

Tools inside Ardis' studio in Midland.

He notes the creative process can be long.

“Commissioned work can be painful in the beginning. Sometimes you wake up sweaty in the middle of the night thinking about it,” says Ardis. “Those pieces are the scariest but they always tend to turn out the best.”

For the mixed-media pieces, Ardis stresses they are fragile and take time to dry. Then they are fired in the kiln, which once complete, takes another one to two days to cool down enough to open the lid to see what he’s got. Which includes his glazes as well, all of which he makes himself.

A man of many talents, Ardis is currently brushing up on his banjo skills to practice with his grandson.

“Sometimes you make a mistake and you have to start all over,” he says.

His inspiration comes from many places and Ardis names fellow local artists Larry Butcher (the retired Delta College art faculty member and artist) and Armin Mersmann as both sources of friendship and inspiration. His favorite artist he notes is Philippe Faraut, the French sculptor, known for his portraiture work and larger than life pieces among many other artists and sculptors.

The crane Ardis created for Grove Park.

What’s next for Ardis?

He’s currently mulling over design ideas for entering the field of artists chosen to commission a 30-foot abstract piece that will be built in Muskegon next year.

Jim Ardis, owner of Ardis Arts inside his studio.

“I’m currently dreaming about the plans,” he says.

Acosta has been creating lights with Distressed Design since 2013.
Anthony Acosta of Distressed Design

After more than eight years working in architecture in Miami, Anthony Acosta got the itch for something else.

While he loved the creative aspect of building design, the inspiration was lost for him at some point in the ongoing details, plans and execution. With a degree in architecture as well as a Master’s in engineering, Acosta let his creative side take the lead with an impending move to Michigan.

Anthony Acosta inside Distressed Design's studio.

The first thing he built was furniture for his small workshop in the basement of the family home at the time, eventually making small projects and growing from there.

Distressed Design officially kicked off in June of 2013 as he built the business to what it is today. One of his first large orders was for 30 industrial-style lights made from chicken coops for Edge Athlete Lounge in Chicago.

One of Acosta's bike rim and chain chandeliers in his workshop.

Now on any given day, Acosta juggles upwards of 50+ current projects between custom commissioned work and lighting for sale on his website. He adds that being located in Midland has been a big driver of the business when he needs to specific supplies or to send a component out for work.

“When I need to source specific materials or find a component, I can usually find what I need within a 30-minute drive, which never would have happened in Miami,” says Acosta.

Acosta's favorite part of creating is seeing his pieces in their new space.

Acosta sources many materials and unique finds for lights from auctions, antique shows and more. The more unique, the better.

“The lights often make for instant wallpaper with their distinctive patterns,” says Acosta. “I really like to see my pieces where they end up in their new homes.”

A propeller hangs in Acosta's studio in progress.

Some he has only seen through pictures as his work has ended up in Aruba, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and several places across Europe.

“I’ve made friends with the local UPS store for some of these pieces,” he chuckles. “Some of the larger pieces require even building the box it will ship in due to their size.”

His projects are one of a kind, especially since basically any metal object can be a part of Acosta’s creations, making for endless possibilities. He is currently working on flush mount ceiling light made out a firehose strainer.

“The lights often make for instant wallpaper with their distinctive patterns,” says Acosta.

Acosta’s inspiration works both ways, sometimes he will see a piece of reclaimed material and it will spur an idea. Other times, he sketches his own ideas out and builds from that.

“Sometimes I just see something that I can work with and the item itself is inspiring for what it could be,” says Acota. “Then I transfer it to AutoCAD and make sure all the dimensions work.”

His favorite creation?

“Probably some of the larger chandeliers I’ve done and seeing what they add to the room,” says Acosta. “They take the longest and can be the most frustrating, but in the end, they are worth it.”

Different bicycle part chandeliers hang in Acosta's studio.

His largest chandelier was five-foot-tall by 36 inching wide and close to 200 pounds. While Acosta’s standard chandeliers has on average 140 connections between the chains, the larger pieces are double that. Bike chain often doesn’t come ready to use, as is the case working with reclaimed materials, and must be cleaned, sealed and all cut to length.

Other projects have a personal story. The AJ chandelier, one in Acosta’s regular design line up, in named after the one that hangs in his son AJ’s bedroom.

A close up of mixed materials on a chandelier.

A special piece of history, Acosta recently made the couple’s two kids each a nightlight out of the old fire escape signs taken out of wife Jenifer Acosta’s project with The Legacy Building in Bay City.

Acosta’s advice for anyone looking to put their creative juices to work?

“Just go for it! I was told by my dad and family growing up that if I didn’t at least try something, that’s already a failure,” he recalls. “If you’re creative or looking to find your creative outlet, just do it and don’t let criticism get you down. The worst criticism often goes to artists. Just be happy, that’s all that matters.”

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.