Longtime metal maker's mettle

Queen Anne artist Mike Sweeney doesn't have to travel far to see his own work.
Inside the lobby of the Central Building, located downtown on Third Avenue, 7-foot-tall folding metal doors greet visitors to the Cherry Street Coffee House. The doors' four panels feature a curvy, floral-type design created from flat sheet metal.
The doors were a commissioned work by Sweeney, a longtime resident of the area.
"They're beautiful. We get lots of compliments on them," said Laura Jiovannoni, who works at the coffee house.
Sweeney specializes in metal fabrication, which is custom metalwork and is generally associated with architectural accessories.
He's accomplished that rare dream of doing what you love and making a successful living out of it. His business is called Shadowmaker Designs.
"My work is a lot about interaction with space, and shadows actually give depth to form," said Sweeney.
On a recent Friday morning, Sweeney was taking it easy in his Georgetown studio, a high-ceilinged space with a warehouse feel that he shares with a welder. Occasional sparks flew up from the other end of the cavernous interior.
"I'm really good at manipulating mass, space and light," said Sweeney, 67, who has been working as a metal fabricator for 40 years.
Born on a farm in Iowa in 1940, Sweeney moved to Seattle when he was 8. He graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1958. He has always liked making things, was always in a woodshop or metal-shop, but never considered himself an artist.
After high school, he went to Western Washington University, but was drafted into the Navy. When he got out in '62 he went back to school and earned undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in fine arts.
"In college, I got exposed to a lot of welding techniques and worked a lot of different ways with metals," said Sweeney.
While in grad school at the University of Kentucky, he also taught classes. It was there that he was inspired to pursue art-making as a living. The university was putting money in the arts programs, he said, building studios and bringing on guest artists.
Sweeney found he was drawn to Minimalism, a new style that emphasizes extreme simplification of form. Pieces of Sweeney's work can be found around Seattle and are currently on display at the Form-Space-Light Gallery in Fremont.
After grad school, Sweeney continued to teach for a few years and then in the 1960s he quit and did metal fabrication full time in Ithaca, N.Y. It was a good life, but he and his wife, Mickey, decided they missed the smell of the water and moved back to Seattle. They have lived here ever since. The couple have two grown children and four grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 21.
While in Seattle, Sweeney has built an extensive portfolio, doing a lot of commissioned artwork as well as his own projects.
"My own personal work is where I build my vocabulary of effects. It's learning on my own work so when I get a commission, I can apply all that to a specific project or goal," he said.
In 1983 he joined the roster of artists featured at the Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery. His art was on display there for 15 years.
He also designed living room furniture for a period of years.
"At one time you could see my furniture in a lot of stores around Seattle," said Sweeney.
Recently, he designed the plaques for the memorial wall in the lobby of the new Seattle police headquarters, which bears the names of officers killed in the line of duty.
This past year, Sweeney had a new and unforeseen challenge - he battled leukemia. While this might have slowed down another artist, according to John Parkinson, owner of Form-Space-Light Gallery in Fremont, it didn't seem to get Sweeney down at all.
"It was inspiring to me that at his age, he powered through it," said Parkinson. "He had a solo show at the height of his treatments."
Sweeney said his attitude was to go to the hospital, get fixed and come back to work.
"I didn't expect to feel bad with treatment, but when I did, it always surprised me," said Sweeney. "There were days it stopped me, but (looking over) the year, I got a lot done last year. Big projects finished and installed."
Sweeney mainly does work for private clients and for himself, but he has four public outdoor pieces in the region. These are:
* In Lake City, a series of rocks with flat metal waves that grace the median strip of Lake City Way
* Ronald Bog Park in Shoreline, a sculpture called "Kiss"
* on the Issaquah Highlands, a large piece on a lazy susan titled "Shadowmaker"
* in an apartment complex near the Bellevue Mall, a piece called "Fish Ladder."
Sweeney says you can suggest meaning when titling a piece, but he really hopes viewers can find their own meaning in a piece of his art.
"I've taken a lot of inspiration from his pieces," said Parkinson, who is a painter.
Among the ways Sweeney inspires Parkinson is how he delivers a top quality, elegantly finished product.
"Seeing his dedication, his longevity with art, his ability to persist through problems, his fabrication skill, his finishing ability," said Parkinson.

Ryan Morden is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory

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