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Fountain Craftsman Lee Blackwell

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: July, 2014, Page 22
Standing 6 feet high, this “Boulder” fountain was made for a Tucson couple and mirrors a rock formation seen on their mountain property.

Artist Lee Blackwell creates copper fountains that replicate the organic forms of nature

After an influential trip to Rome when he was 20 years old, Lee Blackwell left the Eternal City with much more than the typical statue of David novelty trinket. With acclaimed works by some of the world’s most-gifted virtuosos displayed before him, the young craftsman drew inspiration for his own blossoming career. Clean lines, flowing curves and functionality would come to be the core principles behind the artisan’s forthcoming designs.

No novice to the art world, Blackwell created his first metal sculpture at the age of 15, and built and sold pieces throughout his teens. He also studied industrial welding at a vocational school in his native Denver, and says he made a “conscious decision to become a metal artist” with the guidance and support of his entrepreneurial parents.

During his travels to Rome, he found himself enchanted by the city’s grand fountains and decided to try his hand at the craft. “When I got back, I was full of youthful enthusiasm and confidence,” Blackwell discloses. “All the fountains in Rome were stone, but I’m a metal guy and I liked the idea of combining metal and water. So I cut, welded and beat large sheets of steel until I had created a 6-foot-high gushing wonder.”

The water for this 36-inch “Iris” fountain travels up its five stems and then trickles off the flower petals and into the basin.
The artist explains that this first fountain-like creation featured jets and a series of pools, with water even flowing along the inverted curves of the sculpture. “It was lovely, but sadly it began to rust immediately,” he recalls. “It was fun learning how the water behaves though, and I took the time to further educate myself about pumps and parts.”

Eventually, he began to use sheet copper, later graduating to PhosCopper brazing alloy—a medium he describes as ideal for his work. In 1982, Blackwell moved to Tubac, Arizona, and opened a shop. “I became successful selling my art as soon as I opened the doors,” he recalls. “Customers egged me on to see what I could do. Then, one day I was commissioned to sculpt a desert plant that also sprayed water, and my business really took off.”

He begins his work by conceptualizing a fountain’s designs. Once he’s settled on a design, he may also make a miniature model out of cardboard. When he’s ready to create the actual piece, he starts by cutting and forming the copper parts. Next, he uses an oxy-acetylene torch to join these segments, integrating alloyed copper filler rods for support.

Although Blackwell has found much success, he continues to hone and refine his craft. He has opened a second shop in Tucson to be closer to his new home. “A big challenge I face is getting a pleasing water sound without excessive splash-over,” the artist confides. “Good design promotes reliability and easy maintenance, which are major goals of mine.”

From sparkling copper saguaros twice the size of the average person, to agaves and yuccas, Blackwell’s fountains mirror their living prototypes—replete with metallic tendrils dripping with the elixir that makes life on Earth possible.

Photos - From left: Lee Blackwell • This fountain is made from a single sheet of metal. “You can hear the water, but it doesn’t compete with conversation on the patio,” Lee Blackwell notes

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