FireSmith Copper creates art with fire

For Paul Yost and Jennah Litecky Yost, every day in the FireSmith Copper studio is a science experiment. Taking a raw sheet of copper and applying specific gases and pressure to it layers different colors into the metal. After the background has been “painted,” abrasive tools are used to draw in the design. 

“We don’t add anything to the copper; we just use the torch to get the colors out,” Litecky Yost said. “We like to say, all the color is in copper and it’s up to us to coax it out.”

Litecky Yost has been an artist her entire life and Yost has a background in carpentry; he helped restore covered historic bridges throughout Oregon. The two met at a mutual friends going away party, and sparks flew. After Litecky Yost graduated from the University of Oregon in 2013, she was taught by her mother — who is also a copper artist — how to work with the medium. By fall of that year, Litecky Yost and Yost attended their first show and created FireSmith Copper.

“It was very natural (to be a business),” Litecky Yost said. “Since it’s both of us, we didn’t want it under his or my name, we wanted it to be a team effort. Instead of being two artists working together, we decided to become a team.”

Even if a piece has the same design, all of the artwork is unique. Due to the temperature and humidity, or the mood that the artist are in, the background, burn and line-work will always be different.

The copper being painted by the flame. Jennah Litecky Yost said, “All the color is in copper and it’s up to us to coax it out.”

Copper, however, is not an easy medium to work in. The artists are challenged with oxidization, and have to be careful to avoid fingerprints that mark the metal. Litecky Yost said they call it “a little bit of love in every piece, a little bit of us.” The biggest trick is not overheating the copper. To bring out the colors, she has to build up the colors, heating and cooling lines around five to six different times — careful not to keep the colors from turning brown. 

“If we were to keep (heating it), it would turn brown. That’s the trick that Jennah has perfected,” Yost said. “She knows how much to put on each color.”

Litecky Yost said that the color changes so quickly, as soon as lays the flame down to the cooper it starts to change; however, the colors continue to change seconds after the heat is removed. “You decide when the color is done before taking the flame off in a way,” she explained.  

Litecky Yost said she has to work with the copper. Sometimes she will have an idea in her heard for a design, but when she’s doing the burn the colors are turning out differently, or it’s not quite working out the way she imagined. 

“The piece can completely change in the burn room,” she said. “We work until the piece tells us when it’s completed. It feels done. Artistically, that’s how I know when to stop.”

Even the design is a challenge. Using tools, the artists will remove the top layer of color to create the lines. Yost said that over the years they found that the intended use of a tool isn’t what works best. “We use tools incorrectly,” he said; experimenting is part of the process.

Jennah Litecky Yost holds a completed abstract piece. Designs include birches, abstracts, birds and more.

The pair has ideas on new ways to burn the copper, such as painting the face with gasoline and burning it. Litecky Yost said that they don’t have the time to try out their new methods, because demand has been so high.

Copper-work was a complete learning curve for Litecky Yost, who had experience with the traditional mediums of painting, drawing and sculpting. She said she never worked with metal outside of jewelry, and she said she learns something new every day. 

FireSmith Copper’s work can be seen at galleries in Silverton, McMinville, Lincoln City, Bandon and Missoula. The artists also attend around 15 shows a year across five states; this year, they’re heading to Arizona. For local fans, FireSmith Copper can be found each year at the Holiday Market in Eugene. They said one of their goals is to continue to expand to shows across the country. 

Majority of their business is done at the fine art shows, which will be the avenue for them to get the type of work they have really been looking for — unique, commission work. One of their personal struggles is having one of their series, like the birches, be high in demand, because it means they have to make the same designs over and over.

“We want to explore,” Litecky Yost said. 

At the moment they are working on an outdoor fountain, but they have done other outdoor pieces, tabletops, and bar tops; each piece has a clear coat put on it, to keep the copper from being tarnished or the colors from warping. Yost said that working with furniture and larger-scale pieces is their ultimate goal. 

Litecky Yost always thought the art was going to be the most rewarding part of FireSmith Copper, and while that is a part of it, she said it’s the success of owning a company and watching it grow.

“I’m an artist, but I didn’t realize I wanted to own a business,” she said. “Owning a company in a field I enjoy working in and am inspired by. Going to shows and meeting people; people who bought even one small piece and once back year after year to tell us how much they love the work and what it means to them. 

“So much of ourselves are out there,” she continued. “Even if FireSmith ended tomorrow I’d feel success for the rest of my life. The work is so interesting and dynamic, I hope it brings a lot of happiness and light into the world.”

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