An exhibit that opened Saturday at Bethlehem’s National Museum of Industrial History celebrates how art can preserve the past.
Chris Bathgate, a self-trained machinist, works with both handmade tools and automated milling machines to create utterly unique sculptures.
Some pieces can change shape. Others look like battle-ready robots.
Yet that “sci-fi aesthetic” is rooted in techniques created during the Industrial Revolution, the Baltimore-based Bathgate told lehighvalleylive.com.
“Mr. Bathgate’s beautiful sculptures provoke visitors to consider industry past and present,” Kara Mohsingerm, the museum’s president said in a statement.
It’s natural to have his art exhibited in an industrial museum, Bathgate said, that is housed in an electrical shop at the former Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s flagship plant on Southside Bethlehem.
“They fall out of common use because they’re antiquated,” he said about his tools. “But artists have a very long history of taking up cast-off and antiquated processes.”
Back in 1998, Bathgate was in the first class to graduate from the full curriculum at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology. That school is near where he grew up in Middle River, Maryland, and about 15 miles from Bethlehem Steel’s plant in Sparrows Point.
He credited Nicole Fall, his sculpture teacher, with expanding his vision from just drawing and painting.
“There was a welding shop that was abandoned,” he said. “She just grabbed a half-dozen of us and was like, ‘Let’s teach you how to weld.’”
He lasted a year at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It didn’t teach enough practical skills about how to build things, he said, although he did learn a lot while working part-time at a foundry.
Later, he set up his first welding shop in a shed.
“If you cut steel, it’s very geometric,” he said. “But if you heat it and bend it, it can be very organic.”
His early pieces played with that contrast.
From there, he hand-built his first computer-assisted fabrication equipment. There wasn’t YouTube to help him, but online forums did connect him with people who knew what they were doing. He also received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to build one of his machines.
For more than a decade, Bathgate said he put around 30 hours a week into art on top of his day job, but now he’s able to sculpt full time.
Bathgate gives his work code names like “BU 622411311751,” to make sure the art doesn’t feel too familiar to viewers.
At the same time, he’s not necessarily trying to evoke “traditional science fiction,” he said. The craft itself inspires him.
“I’m primarily interested in the underlying engineering of the pieces,” he said, some of which can take months to finish.
The exhibit, “Art of Precision: The Engineered Sculpture of Christopher Bathgate” runs through May.