Don McCullough builds his sculptures drop by drop.
With meticulous care, he melts pewter and layers the cooling drops like the scales of a fish. Over time they become boxers in mid-punch, dolphins in mid-leap. His art begins with heat, but when it cools into smooth forms, it surges with life.
"Every scale is one drop of pewter," said McCullough, 55, a New Jersey native. "I melt the metal down one drop at a time and hand build."
Sports figures are popular at art shows — he has created hurdlers, fencers, football players. But he says he doesn't have a theme.
"I can do anything — cars, boats, motorcycles or whatever someone wants."
A 4-foot high figure of a black-haired woman with a sparkling pewter neck and throat, for example, was a commissioned piece done from a photo of the subject. The figure stands on a block of granite.
Mostly, though, McCullough doesn't work from photos. He doesn't even make sketches.
"I just visualize what I want to do and start sculpting," he said.
The artist's imagination has taken various turns. In the garage is a whimsical 4-foot great blue heron with a green tree frog in its mouth. The frog has the heron's throat in its grip. McCullough has dubbed the piece Never Give Up.
In the living room on a small table stands a pewter crucifix, also 4 feet tall, with the figure of Jesus hanging limp and wasted on the cross.
"I worked on this one for three months straight," said the artist. "That was 12 hours a day five days a week."
McCullough has slowly refined his process since 1999, when he left his job as a UPS driver to focus full time on his art. A 1997 graduate of the Newark School of Industrial and Fine Arts in New Jersey, he credits sculptor Michael Satchman, under whom he studied in New Jersey in the early 1980s, with the most important advice he received: study anatomy. McCullough did just that intensely for several years — through observation, books and Satchman's mentoring.
"Now I can take the anatomy of anyone and build it in sculpture," he said. "Even from a head shot I work from what I remember about that person's body."
Once his idea takes shape, McCullough begins to melt the pewter, overlapping the silver drops into a continuous spiral until a shape begins to form. He leaves the sculpture hollow inside so it won't suck up the heat from the soldering iron and stick to the iron.
The sculptor then applies details by adding drops of pewter to raise a muscle, improve body structure or touch up clothing.
Last, he puts a solution on the completed piece to varnish it and remove particles and dust.
McCullough's prices reflect the size, intricacy and special features of a work. His pewter fish sculptures, including sailfish, marlins and swordfish, each about 8 inches long, start at $150. The sculpture in the garage he calls The Moment of Impact depicting a basketball player leaping to the basket, is mounted on a parquet wooden block. Each square in the wood is signed by a player from the Orlando Magic basketball team. The piece is priced at $12,000.
McCullough relies on art shows and his website to sell his sculptures. He travels the country to cities where his art has sold well — affluent Florida communities such as Naples and Boca Raton, but also the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y., and Santa Monica, Calif. He typically exhibits in eight shows a year and has acquired some collectors along the way.
Still, McCullough hopes to give up the shows at some point. "I would like to have professional athletes contact me on a regular basis to put their likeness in sculpture," he said. "I don't care what the sport is."
He also envisions opening a foundry one day where he can provide jobs and training in making molds and assembling fine art sculpture.
In the meantime, McCullough spends lots of time in the garage melting the pewter that has given him recognition in the art world. He has won dozens of awards since entering his first juried art show in Lambertville, N.J., in 1997.
"I haven't found anyone else that does the kind of pewter and solder sculpture that I do," McCullough said. "This is my own art form."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected].