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Finding beauty in steel

Dominique Martinez makes art out of scrap metal - and he makes a living doing it.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 18, 2002


CHANNEL DISTRICT -- Friends call Dominique Martinez the Man of Steel.

When he fires up a 2,400-degree torch to rip through a sheet of solid steel, the ensuing cascade of orange sparks sends onlookers running. Martinez doesn't budge.

When he polishes metal with a coarse sandpaper grinder that spins at 11,000 rpm and smells like a car crash, he doesn't flinch.

But Martinez is no steel worker. He's the man behind Rustic Steel, one of Tampa's newest art studios, and a self-taught master in the unusual medium of raw and polished steel.

"I never thought that I could make a living out of this, and then I found my niche," Martinez says in his studio on 12th Street.

The Channel District's resident Vulcan -- the Roman god of fire, arts and metalworks -- currently has a small fan base. Martinez estimates 70 percent of his business comes from Harbour Island, and the rest from the district.

But Rustic Steel is growing. In the nine months since he opened, Martinez has created more than 200 pieces, most of which have sold in days.

"It's extremely different, and he's excited about his work," says fan Janie Regenhardt, who owns two Martinez sconces. She's also ordering a handful of wall torches and a chandelier for her living room.

Martinez's medieval pieces contain elements of both raw steel -- which looks rusty but is smooth to the touch -- and polished steel.

Not stainless steel. Polished. Martinez is very clear on that.

"Everybody thinks that it's stainless steel, but it's not," he says. "Stainless steel is so much easier to work with. It's a lot more forgiving. Raw steel, to work with, it's not as pliable, it's not as flexible, it's a lot harder to work with.

"It's a totally different look and no one else does it."

Martinez has loved art since moving from France to New York with his parents at age 7.

After studying art history in college, he took a job appraising and authenticating fine artwork for an auction house in New York. Being so close to such magnificent art -- his hands have held Rembrandt's etchings -- whetted his appetite to create art of his own.

Martinez became a venture capitalist, perpetually promoting his associates' dreams, not his own. He taught himself to sculpt metal but never intended to make a career of it. A few pieces here and there for friends, nothing more.

In his studio, he keeps one of his first pieces, a full-length mirror. Its noticeably jagged edges remind him of his early unrefined skill.

Martinez honed his craft every day after work, picking up equipment and materials whenever and wherever he could. Encouraged by friends who raved over his work, he considered quitting his job and becoming a full-time artist.

But, he said: "The minute you do, you've got no income. That's how a lot of artists become starving artists."

Last December, Martinez made a resolution for 2002. "If I'm going to do this," he said to himself, "I better get serious, because I do not want to become a starving artist."

He opened up shop in the Channel District and has been grinding out art ever since. He's even taken on an apprentice, Adam Mahan, an 18-year-old student at the University of South Florida who's a big fan of Martinez's work.

"I've never seen anything like it," Mahan says. "It says a lot about him. It's very strong and powerful, and he likes that."

Where most people find junk, Martinez finds inspiration. He has worked out deals with scrap yards and steel companies to obtain raw metal, and he sees potential artwork wherever he goes.

"I see it in its rawest form that you'll ever see it in its most dilapidated and tarnished form," he says.

In the next month, he'll expand his current 700 square feet of studio space to more than 6,000. He recently inked a deal to provide artwork for an apartment building at 354 Bayshore Blvd., and he has been talking with interior designers.

"Little by little, I'm going to get the equipment that I need," he says. "I'm not in a rush. I'm not out to make a million dollars or anything like that. I just want to do what I love to do."

-- Staff writer Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

NAME: Dominique Martinez

  • BUSINESS: Rustic Steel
  • HOME BASE: Channel District
  • TALENT: Polishing steel
  • WHAT HE STARTS WITH: Raw metal found at steel factories and junk yards, such as girders, gears, safes, brass couplings, steel meshing and even a railroad car.
  • WHAT HE ENDS UP WITH: Mirrors, sculptures, wall sconces and torches, lamps, business card holders, tables and signs.
  • CURRENT PROJECT: "Equalization of Opposing Forces," a 14-foot-high sculpture of a knight battling a dragon. It will take more than 100 hours to complete.
  • NOTABLE FANS: Nancy Alexander; pro wrestler Kevin Donofrio, a.k.a. Cyborg
  • WEB SITE: www.rusticsteel.com

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