Metal Head | Artist Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 27, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

There are no straight lines in nature, we're told, but sometimes you can see -- at least in retrospect -- an unwavering trajectory in a person's life; a path so direct and clear-cut, no map was necessary. This seems to be the case with the evolution of Chelsie Bush, proprietor of Birdseye Metal & Glass in Richmond.

Bush, now 27, probably didn't call his creations "art" when he was building forts with his brothers out of dead tree limbs and stones. Or when his dad taught him how to take apart and re-assemble motors on cars and trucks, or to use the tools in his shop. But it was all in a day's play for a creative boy raised without television in rural Vermont.

You might say Bush was born into art: His father Jeb was a blacksmith, his mother Judy a potter. But into this environment he brought his own desire to "constantly make stuff," an insatiable curiosity to know how things work and, not least, an eye for beauty. During two-and-a-half years of home schooling, he chose to add "in-depth studies of Gothic architecture and Alexander Calder."

Later, after apprenticing with a local carpenter, Bush was torn between pursuing architecture or art. But the hands-on appeal of working with tools won out. Specifically, it was Alfred University that lured him, "after a tour where I found a vast amount of equipment and studios to work with," Bush says. There, hungry for knowledge, he studied glass blowing, neon, foundry practices, woodworking and metal fabrication. "My professors kept nagging me to focus on one medium," he writes in a statement accompanying his resumé, "but I kept explaining to them that it was important for me to burn as many candles as possible while they were in front of me."

Bush's senior project was the epitome of "mixed media": a dining-room set made of woods and steel; two car motors "enhanced" with blown glass and neon light; and glass-and-metal sculptures.

After graduating in 2000, Bush traveled a bit and worked in glass studios, including the famous Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. But soon he returned home and set up his shop in Richmond with the guys he'd worked for in high school. Birdseye Metal & Glass, or BMG, is a division of Birdseye Building, which focuses on residential construction. There, Bush makes ornamental metalwork such as handrails, door hardware, lighting and other architectural elements.

"Chelsie's work is energetic and spontaneous -- there's sort of a refined grittiness to it," says Birdseye co-owner John Seibert. "He's incredibly talented and versatile; he can hop from welding to forge work to glass projects to framing."

But if Bush is a jack of nearly all trades, his specialty is custom lighting fixtures; he's developing a line that can be manufactured at BMG. That said, each of them is unique, and all incorporate unusual elements -- parts that some people might call junk.

"A lot of my pieces come from the trash left behind from cars," he acknowledges. "Such as differential gears. I first started picking these up from the dumpster at a Caterpillar plant. I finally realized it was a gear part when I was taking apart my truck."

A stunning example is the chandelier hanging at On the Rise Bakery in Richmond -- that is, if someone hasn't plopped down the $4200 for it already. Bush's older brother Ben (who also works at Birdseye as a draftsman) owns the bakery with his wife Rachel, and it serves as a mini gallery for Bush's illuminating creations. Along with an old wagon wheel, the chandelier uses six pistons, which hold long, red snouts of blown glass sized to fit. Several sconce-type lights, also made of vibrantly colored blown glass and metal, hang on an adjacent wall. These go for $300 to $500. Oh, and he also made the wood-glass-and-metal front door, as well as the neon sign in the window.

It's hard to know whether Bush's resourcefulness was learned or is part of his genetic code. But one look at the yard behind his shop tells you he's a guy who saves -- and finds a use for -- pretty much everything. Is he going to turn into one of these stereotypical Vermonters with junked cars in the yard? He already has, but protests, "It's pretty organized!" True, most of his collection is tucked behind the building -- heaps of metal, wood, a row of old theater seats, a set of wheels and an axle. He calls the area "metal beach," and accurately dubs his enterprise "a recycling organism."

Inside the shop, Bush shows off an assortment of gear he's reclaimed from history, such as a 19th-century lathe and power hammer for forging, and a milling machine he guesses dates from the 1920s or '30s. The ones that don't work yet are ongoing projects. So are the diesel tanks he's converting for vegetable oil -- yes, for cars. And then there's the neat stack of parts for that '46 Dodge . . .

Bush made news a couple years ago with a quite different vehicle -- a 1964 military ambulance he'd refashioned into a "Homeland Security, Department of Domestic Suppression" mobile unit. Bringing it to antiwar demonstrations in Montpelier and Burlington, Bush uniquely contributed his opinion of the president who shares his name.

When it comes to sociopolitical commentary, though, Bush is more outspoken about the mind-numbing effects of television. He still doesn't have one -- and that, he suggests pointedly, gives him a lot more time to tinker. "TV is the most abused drug," he declares. That view is eloquently and wittily conveyed by a contraption he calls "Unplug the Drug." The multimedia piece is essentially a 21-foot-long hypodermic needle on wheels; its syringe filled with a jumble of TV sets that actually work. Well, he keeps them set to "fuzz," Bush says. As effective as it was displayed at the Burlington Subaru dealership for last year's South End Art Hop, the piece got even more reaction at the Warren Fourth of July parade. Clad in a white Tyvex suit, Bush dragged a TV shackled to his ankle for good measure.

His next assemblage, a sort of chariot thing entitled "Driving the Iron Horse," will be a commentary on the use of fossil fuels.

Bush's aesthetic has won the admiration of Burlington architect John Anderson, who's hired him on several design projects. At a current renovation in a Shelburne residence, Bush is fabricating the keystone piece for, ironically, the TV room in the basement, which Anderson describes as "a Blade Runner/nuclear winter/Russian submarine kind of environment." The floor-to-ceiling installation "looks like a cross between a big old factory plumbing pipe and an old periscope in a Russian submarine." Inside is a neon sculpture with a low-level red glow.

Anderson says in the past he's hired Bush to do some sleek, refined, ultra-modern projects, "but I can say, 'Make it look brutal and scary and 100 years old,' and he can do that. For me he's the perfect kind of guy to work with," Anderson adds, "because he can cover so much ground."

"The longer I'm around, the more work there is," Bush muses. "A lot of it is just my drive to make things."