American and Russian Collaboration Wins the Fire Pit & Sculpture Competition at Oregon Winterfest

(Left: The Life Circle, Sculpture by Kellen Bateham & Anton Yakushev. Right:  Kellen Bateham & Anton Yakushev | Photos courtesy of Ken Marunowski)

After a warm welcome from the Central Oregon Metal Arts Guild last year, Russian sculptor and blacksmith Anton Yakushev and his wife Katja returned to Bend last month for a follow-up visit. During their time here reconnecting with their new Central Oregon metalhead friends, Anton led a demonstration at fellow Blacksmith Joe Elliott’s shop, a demo that I was privy to attend. Similar to his previous Bend workshop where Anton guided participants in creating a giant metal praying mantis, Katja translated as needed, but as before it was Anton’s skill, dexterity and poise that commanded everyone’s attention as he shaped a lovely, adjustable necklace complete with textured, twisting leaves from metal and fire.

The primary purpose of Anton and Katja’s second visit to the Pacific Northwest involved a two-day, sold-out workshop Anton led for the Northwest Blacksmith Association (NWBA) in Longview, Washington. There, Anton assisted participants in “Forging a Scorpion,” an opportunity coordinated for the Russian couple by Bend blacksmith and NWBA V President Kellen Bateham. 

With time to spare before this workshop, Kellen rather spontaneously invited Anton to participate with him in this year’s Fire Pit & Sculpture Competition for the 21st annual OnPoint Community Credit Union Oregon Winterfest. Kellen’s sixth time entering this event in the seven years of its existence, the two quickly got to work, adopting the creative philosophy of local fabricator Doug Wagner who suggests considering the sculpture as something of a sketch, making it in just one day and only using metal scraps from the shop. This way, as Kellen explained Doug’s wisdom, “If it sucks, you can toss it and not care since you only invested time and not money.”

Anton had his sights on a fish sculpture. Kellen explained to Anton the importance of salmon to the Pacific Northwest region, and the two agreed upon the Chinook as a model. They reviewed photos, drew sketches, and began scavenging Kellen’s shop for metal with potential. They gestured to one another, held up pieces while fitting them together, and used short phrases like “chut, chut,” a Russian expression meaning “a little bit” and the English phrase, “Like this?” 

In two days the blacksmiths forged The Life Circle, a larger-than-life Chinook salmon with a realistic head and a skeletal tail. Below the formidable fish, oriented as if swimming upstream, lie eggs in various stages of intactness as well as young salmon milling about, illustrating its birth-to-death life cycle. Situated above a blackened, four-legged table with a small fire basin that burned bright at Winterfest, the Chinook appeared as a Phoenix rising out of the flames. 

The result was outstanding, so outstanding in fact that it won both the People’s Choice Award and the competition’s juried Grand Prize: a purchase award and future installation in neighboring Prineville! For the artists, the metal sculpture serves as a reminder of the power of non-verbal communication that has the capacity to overcome language barriers, particularly when the passion for a creative endeavor can guide the way. For us, the sculpture symbolizes the cyclical nature of life and the human capacity to extend ourselves beyond our differences to achieve a common aim.

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