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Beyond countertops

Joseph Spencer does enameling
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Artist Joseph Spencer does open-fire enameling on a copper fish shape, which he will attach to a small block of Corian to make a decorative paperweight.

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 8, 2001


An artist discovers Corian is a great medium for making table sculptures, paperweights and jewelry.

SAFETY HARBOR -- When the rest of us see Corian, we think of a solid-surface countertop for the kitchen or bath. When Joseph Spencer sees Corian, he thinks of bases for his enameled-copper table sculptures and paperweights. Or earrings, some of them the size and shape of dice, others flat squares or rectangles he embellishes with enamel. Or the nine-foot sculpture in his garden entwined by a trumpet vine.
Paperweight Enamelled copper flowers embellish a Corian paperweight, 3 inches square.

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]

"Corian is absolutely gorgeous for this kind of thing. The weather won't hurt it," said Spencer, standing in front of his tiny studio off Main Street in Safety Harbor just a few blocks from Old Tampa Bay. "It's extremely durable, and the beautiful thing is, if it does get banged or dinged, you just rub it out" with an abrasive pad. "It's so fabulous."
Copper earring
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Squares of Corian one-eighth-inch thick are tumbled for a month to smooth rough edges and polish them. Then artist Joseph Spencer adds an enameled copper accent.
At 76, "with steel knees and a steel shoulder," Spencer is still keeping pace with a lifetime spent in the arts. He had a first career as an operatic tenor. Later he owned a business designing, furnishing and decorating churches: "Altars, pews, pulpits, communion rails," he recalled. "You might work five or six years on a single job." He became skilled in enameled copper work, developing a system that uses as many as four torches at once. He and his wife, Lois, toured the country for years with traveling art shows. For seven years, starting in 1975, he was a resident artist at the old Kapok Tree restaurant in Clearwater, making and selling table sculptures, wind chimes, jewelry, flowers, butterflies and other items in enameled copper on agate bases.

The Spencers for many years produced the Safety Harbor seafood festival and still put on the city's art shows in December and May.

Dice earring
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Sheets of half-inch Corian are cut into sticks, then into dice to make earrings.
About 10 years ago, when a friend started producing Corian countertops, Spencer asked him for "some to play with" and began to use pieces of it for the bases of his paperweights and sculptures. Later he started making jewelry. Using an 80-tooth carbide blade and a diamond wet saw, Spencer cuts one-eighth-inch sheets of Corian (he gets scraps and leftovers from his friend's countertop shop) into 1-inch squares or into 1- by 2-inch rectangles for the flat earrings. He uses half-inch Corian for the dice, cutting it first into sticks, then into cubes. He uses three-quarter-inch Corian for the bases for his sculptures, 3 inches square.

The cut pieces of Corian are placed in a tumbling machine for as long as 30 days with a granular polishing medium that softens rough edges and polishes them.
Sculpture
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
A 9-foot outdoor sculpture made of Corian stands in the garden at Joseph Spencer’s home in Safety Harbor. “Corian is absolutely gorgeous for this kind of thing. The weather won’t hurt it,” he said.
He adds hooks to the dice and they're ready to wear. But before adding backs to the flat earrings, he embellishes them with bits of enameled copper.

The paperweights and table sculptures will be topped with copper flowers, sea gulls, sailfish or other motifs that he designs using enamel that ranges from a fine powder to small pebbles, depending on the surface he wants to achieve.

"It's a fun thing," he said. "If it were not for the enamel, I would not get excited about the earrings, except for the cubes -- I like them." But the flat ones, he said, "need something to pop them. They need something to kiss them and make them smile." He pointed to one pair of earrings: "Look how the orange pops that gray right out!"

Joseph Spencer sells his work at occasional craft shows or at his shop, which is open by appointment only. The Corian earrings are priced at $10 to $12. Table sculptures are $18 to $20. He can be reached at (727) 725-1562. His Web site is www.bgkdotcom.com/spencer.

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