Nicolas Penfold tried his hand at pottery.
“I made a bunch of pots, and they broke when I dropped them,” says the Scarsdale High School senior.
Now the 17-year-old works in a sturdier medium: steel.
“Steel gives you that experience — with the fire and the metal — that you really can’t have with ceramics,” he says. “It makes a more lasting product. It’s harder to get to the final product, but when you get there, it’s a really good feeling.”
Penfold, the younger brother of standout Scarsdale soccer stars Tomas and Andreas Penfold, has one end of teacher Maria DeAngelis’ 3-D art studio pretty much to himself.
“It’s nice for me,” he says. “I can show up whenever I want and it’s open, but it’s surprising that not a lot of people get into it.”
DeAngelis’ ceramics and sculpture studio is a hive of activity, with potters and glass artists sharing space alongside woodworkers and that one kid, Penfold, who bends steel at will. Long ago, the space was an auto shop, back when schools taught auto mechanics. Then it was a metal shop. It retains the garage doors that open on balmier days to bring the outside in.
DeAngelis has a background in ceramics, glass and welding, making her the ideal candidate for the sculpture position that opened up at Scarsdale 28 years ago.
“Art teachers are generalists, so to be hired to my particular niche is amazing,” she says.
At Scarsdale, students can learn (gas) oxyacetylene, (electric) MIG and arc welding, DeAngelis says.
This class is Advanced Topics Studio in 3D Design, Scarsdale’s particular version of AP Art that gives students and teachers an opportunity to work together on a high level without having to churn out piece after piece to satisfy an AP board.
“Typically, we’ll get three or four pieces a quarter, so maybe 16 pieces a year, not the 24 that AP requires,” DeAngelis says. “We hold on to the idea that we’re going for a breadth of experiences, techniques, materials and expressions, but then you have an opportunity to develop a body of work that is your own investigation.”
Penfold was flipping through a book on African masks and decided to create some of his own, in steel, a medium not generally associated with more natural African counterparts.
“I wanted to see how it would look in steel, because it’s really so opposite,” he says. “It’s usually wood, so I thought it would be cool to try it in a different medium.”
For one project, DeAngelis sent the students to find inspiration in nature, prompting Penfold to create a free-standing flower out of saw blades and bar steel. The petals are discarded saw blades, ground to a shiny buff and mounted onto stems of his bending. The piece has a sort of Dr. Seuss meets Edward Scissorhands quality, the soft petals rendered in hard metal discs.
“I like working with things I find laying around the shop,” he says. “At first, I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, but once you start playing around with them, you get to figure it out.”
He says inspiration doesn’t respect the school schedule.
“I usually do my sketching in other classes,” he says a bit sheepishly. “I like to draw and if I start zoning out in a class, that’s where I’ll get most of my ideas. Most of my notebooks and schoolwork is littered with drawings on the margins.”
Taking it from the margins to a gallery is not easy, he says.
“It’s hard to get to this point, to the finished product, especially if you’re starting from a drawing. My drawings are usually much more complicated than the final idea because executing the whole thing is difficult.”
A triangle sculpture, recently displayed at the Katonah Museum of Art’s student show, didn’t end up as it started.
“It was nowhere near what I envisioned when I started,” he says.
I really like triangles,” he says. “Everything’s made of triangles. You learn that in sixth grade. At first, I was trying to make a building out of them, but then I realized that if I stacked them in a certain way, with one triangle coming up and one coming down, it’d give it a more interesting look.”
Penfold works quickly.
Beneath two giant vacuum hoses, on a bench topped with fire-impervious bricks, he toils behind a pair of dark sunglasses, bobbing his head this way and that as he turns a straight steel rod into a zigzag in a matter of minutes.
He is all concentration, his hands protected by thick suede gloves as he heats the rod to a red glow before twisting it into a shape of his choosing.
“The cool thing for me is manipulating something that is so rigid,” he says. “You think of metal as heavy and bulky, but when you heat it up, it’s almost like it wants to move, it wants to bend. You get something that’s completely out of its element.”
And welding requires strength, “You gotta torque it,” he says. “I got it hot and then put it on the anvil and then went at it with a wooden mallet. I did it at first with a metal one, but the mask got all dinged up, so I switched to the wooden one. That’s where Ms. DeAngelis comes in handy. She really helps me out.”
Penfold says welding makes him notice architecture and the work that went into it.
“I took architecture last year and I think that really helped me out in sculpting, because it makes you look at figures differently. Architecture and sculpture go hand in hand. They both work with space and materials and physical objects and how you’re going to put things together.”
He’s not sure what he’ll study in college, but thinks art will figure into it in some way. “When you like something so much, you kind of have to stick with it,” he says.