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Artist Interview: Fortress Galvanic Arts

Artist Interview: Fortress Galvanic Arts

Muhammed Ali on steel


Fortress Galvanic Arts was born a little over a year ago when Andhi Pettersen enticed Jason Fitzgerald into the prospect of adding non-toxic corrosive metal etching to their collective host of considerable artistic skills.

I’ve known both of these talented guys for some time now and have enjoyed their many creations birthed of hard physical work, a variety of industrial and fine art skills, and their wicked twisted & humorous creative visions. From art cars and giant monstrous metal sculptures to amazingly detailed stencils and subliminal additions to cheesy thrift store paintings, these artists cannot be contented with channeling their creative energy in any one or two forms, and now, they are artfully etching metal via some seriously high voltage enhanced galvanic corrosion at their new endeavor. Here is my interview with them:

When did you get into metal etching and how did you get into it?

Andhi Pettersen (AP): I got into etching August of last year. I had a belt buckle in mind that I wanted to make and through some research I came up with the process which is similar to the process used to make printed circuit boards.

Jason Fitzgerald (JF): I had seen videos online of some steampunk kids making little etched brass stuff to put on their top hats or something. A few days later Andhi came to me and showed me similar stuff online, very synchronous. We started thinking about other applications of the process; how to amplify it and take it from the hobby level to large scale sculptural and architectural applications. We’ve been at it for a year now, experimenting with different methods. Although we’re keeping it as non-toxic and as safe as possible, It’s still a pretty dangerous endeavor. The process commands respect.

Bamboo Etched decorative doorway header

If I understand the galvanic process correctly, you’re shocking the hell out of metal submerged in an electrolyte bath. It sounds dangerous AND fun. Is it like Frankensteins lab with flashing lights, big goggles, and thick rubber gloves? What’s it like to orchestrate the process?

AP: The Galvanic process happens naturally when 2 different types of metal are put in solution together, a small current of electrons begins to move from the anode to the cathode. By adding more electricity through the circuit the process is sped up. We run quite a bit of electricity through our work, and yes Frankenstein would be proud. Transformers buzzing, hydrogen bubbles being released.

JF: (laughing) Yeah, I kind of ignited the oxygen and hydrogen that rises from the etch bath this one time. Safety 3rd! (laughter)

etched whiskey flask

AP: We are very careful, the voltage could kill, and the hydrogen igniting part, though not of the caliber of the Hindenburg, is something we quickly learned to avoid.

JF: Once the bath is activated I run away like a scared little girl. AC-DC baby! HIGH VOLTAGE!! Seriously though, a few errors while developing the process is part of the learning curve. We are careful enough that they have been minor. More attention getting than destructive.

AP: The worst thing is the electrolyte solution. It’s pretty salty and can be really irritating to the skin. But that is way better than the toxic soups used for industrial etching. Some of them are deadly in minute traces.

It’s great that the etching you’re doing is non-toxic. I’ve heard about how toxic other etching processes are. I’ve also heard more than a few stories about poisoned artists. Painters and their sometimes caustic mediums, photographers in their chemical-rich dark rooms, and metal workers or jewelers exposed to gasses. Are there any other hazards you have to watch out for?

JF: The patinas are pretty toxic but we use the proper protection. RTFM and all that (Read The Fucking Manual). So far we’ve been able to come up with satisfying results without relying on acids and other evil stuff to make our art, which is pretty cool. What really commands respect is the power supply we use. It’s very “Weird Science”. It makes what we do possible.

AP: Yes, electricity is the main concern. Its one of those things that you cannot see, but can hurt or even kill you. People typically experience electricity in the form of light and heat, but in this application, we are using it as electrons. The only thing one sees is the bubbles of hydrogen being released from the tank, so its like this invisible beast we’re handling. If a wire connection isn’t properly shielded, it can heat up and cause a burn. It’s a constant struggle to keep the connections clean. Everything in our work space rusts, and yes it never sleeps.

Custom etched plate for Dusty Paik
Can you etch with any kind of metal or are you limited to certain types?

JF: We can pretty much etch everything, but frankly, we stick with what’s easy. Steel is our bitch.

AP: All metals will corrode if given the right conditions. So in theory you can etch, or control corrosion, with any metal, Graphite is at the top of the galvanic scale, so it’s the best cathode, and when put in solution, it will corrode all other metals.

What do like about working with metal in this way that is different from other art you’ve made?

AP: I view it as another card in my deck, it can take a piece to the next level.

JF: I have a fine art background and an industrial arts influence. My mother was the painter and illustrator, and my father was the iron worker. I’ve come to a place with my art where it’s become very schizophrenic as far as materials used and styles employed. When we started etching big plates of steel, my mind began drifting into interesting new ideas and possibilities. I wanted to create massive slabs of information and images that would last centuries. I love steel because it feels so permanent and everlasting, but as the corrosive process we employ demonstrates, nothing lasts forever.

Dana Street Coffee Co. Bar face

What is the largest job you’ve done so far?

AP: The bar face at the Dana Street Roasting Co.

JF: Yeah, that’s an amazing piece. It’s so beautiful and vibrant, it really makes the cafe glow. We’re pretty proud of it.

Nice, I’ve only seen pictures of it, but even so I was pretty impressed. It’s busy but doesn’t feel busy, it has a cohesion to its chaos. It compliments the space rather than taking away from it. Nice work. Is that your favorite so far?

AP: I personally like everything that has been done. It’s hard to place a favorite, each piece is a unique challenge.

JF: They are all enjoyable, but right now my favorite is the bike frame. It turned out great. I put a copper patina on it that looks heavy, dense. The etch we put on it is a woodcut style snakeskin pattern.

woodcut etch on bike frame

I recall you talking about doing a bike frame a while back. I could see the challenge of etching such a small, tubular canvas. I like how it turned out. Great idea. Why sticker a bike when you can etch it? Stickers get scraped off and fade. Even paint chips. Etching gets character. You did patent or trademark that idea, right? I look forward to seeing what you guys create in the future!

Snake skin pattern etch on bike frame

Wood cut snake pattern etched on bike frame

If you would like to retain Fortress Galvanic Arts for your personal or commercial project, whether it be large or small, you can reach them at (415) 509-4891. You can also take a look at the Fortress Galvanic Arts website which was completed in July by a mutual friend of ours, Laurent, who blogged about it here. Cheers Laurent and thank you Andhi & Jason for the interview!

1 Comment

  • Great interview! Make steel their bitch, ha. Interesting and lovely work. I love the scales on the bike.

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