Have you ever seen a steel beam and thought to yourself, what if I could bend that?
Chris Tousimis is a sculptor of steel, living in the Cabin John area of Glen Echo, Maryland. We met in the back corner of Georgetown’s Blue Bottle Coffee shop. He was nearly done with his cup of coffee, and had been waiting for over ten minutes when I finally arrived, but he didn’t seem to mind. It was our first time meeting, yet he greeted me like an old classmate from elementary school. He was smiling, and as we started talking about his art, he kept smiling for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
Tousimis’ path is one of unexpected turns and zigzags, beginning in nearby North Bethesda. A precocious youth, the future Magneto was obsessed with imaginative creation. He doodled and scribbled on almost everything, including the wallpaper of his bedroom. In high school he got into oil painting in the same way other teenagers might get into drugs.
Not considering his passion to be a possible career, Chris majored in marine biology at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College. However, the urge to paint would not let up. He soon moved to an abandoned Colorado mining town called Silverton. There, he could live cheaply and with minimal distractions. There, he could paint surrealist landscapes. He happily showed me canvases, distilled in the archives of his smartphone, from that period.
Then a friend in Connecticut introduced him to welding; the artistic possibilities swirled in his mind, forever influencing the future trajectory of his work.
His first piece was a small one, but as he welded his initial metals, at a temperature of around 623 degrees Fahrenheit, Chris had an almost spiritual epiphany. He described it as a deep feeling of joy, saying he knew, “In all the universe, I am right where I am supposed to be.”
Fourteen years later, Tousimis finds himself spending an inordinate amount of time in his studio, next to his house in Glen Echo. It’s a peaceful and meditative place, surrounded by woods, near the Potomac River.
The sculpting process is long and often arduous. A sculpture, Chris says, usually takes months of elbow grease to reach its finished state. Often, Chris is working around the clock, from morning till night, pausing only when he feels pangs of hunger, or when he needs to use the restroom. He loves it. Here’s how it works.
Chris orders the raw materials from steel suppliers, like BMG, whose typical clientele are manufacturers of buildings and the like. Before the metals arrive, Chris has the plans drawn up of what he wants to create. The planning process, he informs me, can also take months. There’s no room for mistakes. It’s all been meticulously measured out. One tragic misstep can ruin the integrity of his creation.
The unmolded materials arrive at his house, in the form of four by eight-foot stainless steel plates, which weigh around two-hundred and fifty pounds. The deliverer, a man named Reggie, helps Chris lug the slabs of metal to his studio.
Chris dons his welder’s helmet and his respirator mask. The former is protecting him from sparks that might gouge out his eyes. The latter is guarding him against the noxious fumes, that slicing steel with an electrically charged thing called a plasma cutter, might create.
Slicing the steel is the first step, besides the plasma cutter, he also sometimes uses an angle grinder. Most of the process after the slicing consists of bending, which can be physically exhausted. He uses a bending brake and an instrument called the English wheel for most of it.
The English wheel is a bit difficult to explain. Basically, it’s a tall metalworking instrument consisting of two metal wheels. The sculptor places their unshapen plate of steel between the wheels. They rock it back and forth, “stretching” the steel, curving it, making it easier to shape.
The steel is then pressed in vices and welded together. The sculpture begins to take shape. There is a great deal of grinding, just like in woodworking, with finer and finer abrasive products implemented to smooth out the design.
The artwork is made from tough and conventionally unmalleable steel. The finished product, however, resembles liquids swirling in a celestial vortex. The sculptures leave the passerby with an impression of harmony, and of the potential imagination has to alter what was once unyielding.
Tousimis hopes the viewers of his art can take a respite from their busy days, to be filled with wonder, or to simply experience a positive emotion. His sculptures now loom in places like Brandywine Street and Logan Circle. He has a sundial on 30th and is in talks to create a sculpture in Brookland, near the intersection of 7th and Irving Street NE.
Next time you pass Tousimis’ sundial, remember it only took a few hundred degrees Fahrenheit to help you tell the time.