by Gary Hessling

I’ve always considered myself a functional artist. By that I don’t mean just being able to hit my dinner plate with a fork. So what is functional art? It is simply work with a primary function unrelated to the aesthetics of the piece. Since the functional part is most important to the success of the work, the challenge for me is to make the boundary between function and art disappear. The lizard handrail pictured here is an example of this. In every respect it must perform as a handrail—it needs to be to code, fall readily to hand, and give the user a tactile sense of comfort and security.

Using techniques from classical repoussé and traditional blacksmithing, I generally reference my work as forged steel. Although sounding a little suspect, forged steel is not a felonious undertaking. Rather, it’s a process in which a forgeable metal – such as steel, copper, silicon bronze, etc. – is brought to its working temperature, and using force it is then formed into the desired shape.

For most of my work I use 12-gauge (1/8” thick) material. Starting with a manageable sized piece, I heat it in the forge until it’s at a workable temperature—a bright red color for steel. I place it on the anvil and work it with a hammer. (The metal is never in a molten state such as bronze that is poured into a mold.) The anvil is an amazing tool, and by utilizing its face and horn along with a hammer, any shape can be formed. In larger work, there would be many heats, thousands of hammer strikes and hundreds of individual pieces, which are fitted together and welded.

My art harkens back to 1976. After dropping out of Wutsamatter U, I landed at the beginning of the self-reliant, back to nature, Mother Earth movement(s) searching for my niche. I found it in an old anvil and coal fired forge, and the die was cast. I taught myself the basic blacksmith’s skills, but felt restricted by its two dimensional nature. I soon discovered airtight, wood-burning stoves and thought they would make excellent functional art sculptures. I designed and made sculpted wood stoves with good results. Unfortunately, the litigious nature of our society and increasing regulations moved me to find a different canvas to apply my work. I finally stumbled onto safes and realized their potential for sculpture. I have resisted using the label ‘gun safe’ to avoid a typical image or single purpose that may accompany those words. Hey, I thought, what about calling them security armoires? But that sounded a little pretentious. So, by whatever name, let’s just say they all do the same thing, and that is providing uncompromising security wrapped in sculpture.

If the words ‘gun safe’ brings to mind an austere rectangular locker, or a chunky block resembling an upright freezer, imagine instead a sensual curve and a sculpted scene—dueling bighorn sheep, mallards alighting on a cattail fill pond, or perhaps an abstract. The sky’s the limit. Oh…did I mention airplanes?

The safe shown here, Cat In The Canyon, is in progress. It was designed to the buyer’s specifications including size, interior layout and fingerprint-activated lock.

As with all of my functional art, the most important element is the safe itself. You will find a well thought out, beautifully finished one-of-a-kind work of art, individually crafted to the highest standards. The labor-intensive nature of my work limits the number of commissions available each year, and depending on size, art, etc., each safe requires a minimum of two months from design finalization to completion. Follow the progress on this and other projects at

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