Artwork #43

Ascension, for Jessi Combs

by Valerie Chaussonnet, Council District 5

Steel, 2019

Courtesy of the Artist

I have been a sculptor and a painter since the mid-1980s.

As a sculptor, I weld and forge poetic, profound, heavy steel abstract sculptures, stylized busts, and Baroque landscapes inspired by Asian ink paintings. Many of my pieces and series are inspired by prehistory and my professional museum experience in non-western art, especially Russian/Siberian, Japanese, African and Native American arts and cultures. Each of my pieces also carries a personal narrative.

I also weld whimsical “love letters”, which are, actually, love letters to welding and art making, and I weld writers’ sets, which I enjoy using on my own desk. Writing is important to me. I see the marks I make in my sculptures and paintings as a form of writing. I use the welding rod not just as a tool for structural connections between parts, but also as a drawing tool.

I prefer working with my own or others’ discarded practice materials at the welding school, and with recovered steel from industrial use. This marked material carries a sincere feel of vulnerability (as it was “trial”, then was cast off), and it gives me the satisfying sense of having participated in rehabilitation when I turn it into a sculpture. The notion of collaboration with others and with the material is central to my practice as it is in my life in general.

My sculptures are evocative, but maybe not, strictly speaking, representational. They call on the viewer’s imagination. Some, like Ascension, are frankly abstract.

I designed Ascension from found fragments in August 2019. As I added the long point on the top, its title came to me and surprised me, as my titles are usually not so serious or solemn. I trusted it and started welding it together. That’s when I was told, in the welding booth, about Jessi Combs' deadly crash while becoming the fastest woman on wheels, just a couple of days prior. The “American Eagle”, the rocket on wheels she had designed, built, and was driving in a desert in Oregon where the tragedy occured, had a nose like the point on my sculpture, which gave me chills when I saw the photos. In the welding booth that day I was wearing a helmet she had designed especially for us, women in metal work, a colorful, fun, feminist, badass helmet, and this made me feel like she was with me in some powerful sense.

Jessi was an extraordinary person, welder, fabricator, car racer, and a celebrity. I had met her once at the Handbuilt Motorcycle show. We did a couple of selfies, shared some laughs, and talked about the happiness of welding and working with metal. She was strong, funny, kind, inspiring. I'm very sad for our collective loss, and this piece is dedicated to her.