Magnet & Steel

A recent trip to Home Depot restored my faith in the degree to which human caring and creativity can survive in a big-box world.

Don’s been away on retreat and, and when he’s away I’m more likely to do random unusual things, like make a trip to Home Depot at 8:30 on a Friday night! I usually avoid big-box stores whenever possible, and mostly avoid shopping anywhere on Shabbat, so this was pretty unusual. I’d been needing some large saucers to protect our new wooden deck from the herb-garden-planter runoff. This mundane and utilitarian set of items would not have been enough to get me to overcome my aversion to the big-box/Shabbat combo, but I also had a much more creative project in mind: figuring out some way to anchor a set of ceramic sculptures into the earth in my front yard.

The pieces are part of a series on the theme of “surrender,” which I started working on at clay camp in 2015, while I was undergoing chemo, and was bald. They are a series of 5 similar figures in graduated sizes, each a stylized torso and bald head, with the head thrown back at an impossibly severe angle. It takes me a long time to finish enough pieces to make a kiln-load, so it often takes a year or more before I get a piece through the bisque and glaze firings. Most pieces are done after the second firing, but with this set, I’ve had in mind to arrange them in a semi-circle and create a cascade of hair connecting their heads, and put them in the front yard.

I’ve been busy with life, and not down in my studio much (nor, as you can probably guess, have I been writing much!) When I have been in my studio I’ve been working on other pieces, so since coming out of the glaze kiln the Surrender pieces have just been sitting around. Last weekend one of the young people in my life who sometimes comes over to do ceramics came to pick up a long-awaited piece, and we discussed my pieces, and the question of what to make the hair out of (ideally something weatherproof but not plastic). The ideas we came up with got me excited to work on the project, and I started messing around with some wire and hemp rope from my bead collection. But before finalizing this part of the project, I thought it would be good to start figuring out the yard installation details as well – because, for example, if I permanently attached them to each other by their hair, how would this work with anchoring them in the ground?

I’d had them in mind as a yard installation from the beginning, and had made holes in the bottoms of them so I could bolt them with toggle anchor bolts to something. But what, exactly, to bolt them to in order keep them from walking off, I hadn’t determined. Mind you, I’m not worried about sophisticated art thieves being interested in my work – no delusions of grandeur there! But we live in an area frequented by students and every so often things disappear from our front porch, like home-made hula-hoops, and an artsy deck chair purchased at an art fair. And once, an iconic “Terrace” chair stolen from the Wisconsin Student Union appeared on our porch!  So when I bought a sculpture for our front yard from the art fair a few years ago, I had our handyman/carpenter/craftsman Bill pour a concrete footing to install it.

Very unfortunately, Bill passed away from cancer last year. He was an incredible craftsman whose artistic eye has been key in many projects over the years that have, over time, transformed our boring and in some cases tacky 1965 infill house into a place of beauty. I miss him frequently. While I didn’t think pouring concrete was the solution for this sculpture, it would have been really good to have Bill’s help figuring out what was. I’ve been thinking that at some point I’d discuss the project with one or more of my handier friends, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Heck, I thought Friday night, maybe I’ll find a solution at Home Depot!

After wandering around the nearly-deserted store for a while, I’d found the saucers I needed and a couple of other items. I perused the landscaping area and found some angled retaining-wall bricks with holes in the middle that I thought might be a part of the solution for the sculptures. Three of them lined up created an arc that I thought was about the size of my project. But how to anchor them to the ground, and how to anchor the ceramic to them?  I left the outdoor garden area just as some big raindrops started to fall, and made my way back into the heart of the store to the hardware aisle to look for the anchor toggle bolts I’d had in mind when I shaped the bottoms of the pieces. I eventually found them, not without some difficulty – I attempted to ask for help from a passing employee but it wasn’t his department and I didn’t have very high expectations for customer service at a big-box store, so I gave up and kept looking til I found them.

Then I sat on the floor by my cart, trying to figure out whether the 5 or 6-inch bolts were long enough to span the depth of the landscaping bricks I’d loaded on the bottom rack of the cart. It looked like the 6-inch ones would, and there was an interesting groove on one side of each brick that seemed like it would be useful too, but I wasn’t sure what could go in the groove that I could attach a bolt to. Eventually, another employee came into the aisle with a couple of customers in tow. I looked at him inquiringly and he said he’d come help me after he was done with them. When he returned, I proceeded to explain my project to him and ask him whether he had any ideas for how to bolt something to the bricks, and how to anchor the bricks in the ground.

Now, either it was my lucky day, or Home Depot is a whole lot better than I’ve given them credit for. This employee spent the next hour with me, wandering around the store, brainstorming, looking things up, and writing things down for me! He didn’t question my judgment at all, or mansplain, or make me feel at all silly for having this completely half-baked idea in mind (behaviors I generally brace myself for in hardware stores). He asked questions to understand the problem, and I explained that we weren’t trying to prevent serious thieves, just half-assed attempts by drunken pranksters.

We considered a bunch of options, and how we might implement them. We looked at things we didn’t know the function of, that seemed like they might help, and he looked some of them up to get a better understanding of what they were. As we got deeper into this creative process, we realized the assembly part of the problem was more complex than we’d originally thought. If I successfully anchored the bricks into the ground with fence-posts or some other kind of stake, I wouldn’t be able to get the bolt head underneath them anymore to screw it up into the sculpture. But if I screwed the sculpture to the brick first, would I be able to pound the stakes through another part of the hole in the brick without smashing my ceramics? And part-way into our exploration, I realized another twist – I need to be able to undo the anchoring to be able to move the ceramic pieces – not just once when we move out, but ideally, every winter, to protect them from the freeze/thaw cycle that breaks many ceramics!

I sort of expected the Home Depot guy, whose name, by the way, is Christopher Portle, to say he had to get back to his other work. I even asked him once if he needed to, but he said no, and that this was an interesting project. We started sketching some of the ideas on a cardboard box to visualize them. Then, somehow, he came up with the idea of neodymium magnets. I’ve encountered these super-strong magnets in various toys etc. but didn’t realize they were a relatively new invention that is now widely available. I was impressed by the elegance of this solution. I could I affix them to the tops of the bricks and the undersides of the sculptures, doing away with the anchor bolts completely.

On the way over to the aisle with the magnets I asked Chris if I would get him in trouble if I wrote to the store to tell them how helpful he’d been. He said, no, not at all, and that he could use the support because another customer had complained about him earlier that day (for something that wasn’t his fault). By now the PA system in the store was warning us that it was getting close to closing time (10 pm). Chris opened a package of smallish neodymium magnets and cautioned me that they can create blood blisters if you accidentally trap your skin between them. We discussed what size to get, and how I’d have to be cautious if I got really strong ones not to break the sculptures by allowing them to be pulled onto the bricks too quickly, and how I’d need to slide them off rather than pull directly upward.

I asked whether I needed a magnet on each surface, or whether a metal plate on one side would do. He said “I don’t know, let’s try it,” and pointed to a set of materials next to where we were standing – a bunch of metal rods and brackets and things. As we experimented with whether the magnets stuck to the steel rods (yes) and the aluminum rods (no), I realized that the song playing on the PA system, which I had completely tuned out until that moment except for the store-closing announcements, was Magnet and Steel! (“Cause you are the magnet, and I am the steel…”). I pointed this out to Chris and he said he’d learned to ignore the store’s music in order not to go crazy, and that he’d never really listened to the words of that song before. I said it was popular during my teenage years. We agreed it was really weird and kind of amazing timing, though in hindsight I suppose it’s possible that the song had been playing when he’d had the magnet idea in the first place and we just didn’t realize it had subliminally been the source of the inspiration. Fortunately there wasn’t any romantic/sexual/flirtatious energy between us, or this would have been a truly awkward moment (or, I suppose, a truly beautiful one, if we were both single and looking…).

I said goodbye to my new friend, thanking him profusely and telling him I would like to invite him over to see the project when it’s finished (he said I could find him on Facebook). I made my way to the checkout with my saucers, my bricks, my magnets and stakes with holes in them, wire to loop through the stakes and tie around the bricks, wire brush to clean the bricks to epoxy the magnets to them, and anchor bolts too in case I decided to use them, and found the cash registers deserted. I had to get someone to help me with the self-checkout because one of the items Chris had found for me was missing its packaging and he’d had to write down the SKU; plus the bricks didn’t have any pricing stickers on them.

The employees who helped me there were also super nice, real, and helpful, including a cognitively disabled worker who called on someone else to come help me. As I prepared to leave the store, one of the workers said, “Please reassure me that you won’t float away!” I looked at her quizzically and then looked out and realized that the sprinkles I’d felt earlier in the landscaping section had turned into a severe thunderstorm with pounding rain! The woman who was checking me out escorted me out the locked door and suggested I sit on the bench under the overhang ’til I was ready to face the downpour.

I stood there for quite some time waiting for it to pass, examining the radar image on my iPhone to determine whether it was going to lighten up anytime soon. Lightening flashed almost continuously, and sheet after sheet of rain came blowing across the parking lot, spattering into the overhang and moistening my cart, its contents, and me. Meanwhile the employees were leaving one by one through another door and running out to their cars. Eventually, not wanting to be left alone with the storm in the middle of the night under the overhang of a big-box store when no-one in my life knew where I was, I made a run for it myself, backed the car under the overhang, and loaded up my goods. The next morning, I called the store to deliver my appreciation to Chris’ manager, and spent some time moving the sculptures around the yard deciding where to install them. The strangeness of the whole adventure and the unexpected blessing of creative support from a total stranger has stayed with me.

7 thoughts on “Magnet & Steel”

  1. I can’t wait to see how the installation actually works out. Thanks for the inspiring tale. By the way, my experience with Home Depot is similar; if you come in with an unusual request, someone there will awaken and help!

  2. Sweet….. in so many ways. We often say “Thanks for sharing” almost automatically, but your slice of positive human giving story was a really welcome drink of fresh water, in a generally parched Internet landscape these days. Than you, Becca.

  3. Jean McElhaney

    I’m so happy to read this, as I had just been thinking, “I wonder what’s happening with Becca. Haven’t seen a post for awhile.” !!! I love this part: “unexpected blessing of creative support from a total stranger” as a reminder to avoid limiting beliefs about what is possible, stay open to receiving blessings in unexpected places and forms, and to feel and express gratitude when they show up. I will be excited to see what emerges next! Celebrating creativity, support, inspiration, and unexpected blessings! Thank you for this uplifting story.

  4. After my sister had brain surgery, it became clear that she was not returning to pre-tumor functioning, or at least it would be a very long haul. She applied at Home Depot, and my family was quite excited. They have a whole statement on their website that they are welcoming to people with cognitive/physical/psychological challenges.

    She got the job, and the fit was good — she has been a carpenter and general handy-person for many years. Home Depot has a stipulation that all employees must arrive at work on time., however, and she had too much distractibility to do so.

    But at least they gave her a chance. I do think their vision of inclusivity is different from that of many big box stores. And it may contribute to employees’ investment in the needs of their customers.

  5. I too was inspired by your story Becca. I read it when I was in the midst of unpacking in Santa Fe and facing three house issues. Two places where the floor was bare to the concrete, and my study heated up excessively by the southwest sun even with the indoor honeycomb blind pulled. The previous resident covered one of the concrete areas with a piano and the other with a rug and as nearly as I can determine went to Cape Cod in the summer renting out the house to someone else. Your story was on my mind while I was out picking my bike up from the bike shop. On a whim I stopped at an estate sale and found 2 rugs to cover both areas of exposed concrete. A neighbor suggested shade cloth for the too sunny window. I found this at the local hardware store on big rolls that could be cut to specified size. I constructed a temporary solution using broom handles and shade cloth and plan to build a more permanent one when I return. Again I think it was your story in the back of my mind that inspired a design for a more permanent solution. I will use dowels for the sides and maybe the top to attach the shade cloth to; and build a platform and screw the dowels into the platform. I can sit this in front of the window when needed and move aside during summer months when not needed – and disassemble and store in the winter when the sun would be welcome.

  6. oops I realized only after I posted the last message that it does not show my name. That was totally unintentional. I was not trying to be cute or hide me.

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