Birmingham Alabama’s Catherine Partain never imagined she’d be welding. If you’d asked five years ago, she’d have said, “You have the wrong lady!” But as we all know, sometimes your life puts you places you don’t expect you’ll go, and Catherine, even though she’s a “girly-girl,” had a curiosity for so much more—not to mention a need—she’d reached rock bottom in every area of her life. “I was a disappointing mess,” she says.
Now I don’t usually talk about God on this corporate blog, but corporations are made up of real people and our customers and fans are real people with real experiences and whether you believe Catherine’s story or not, I hope you’ll find her story as compelling, and her work as beautiful I as do: God spoke to her.
“He told me to make a cross out of pieces of broken furniture. I did as He told me, and so began my healing,” Catherine says.
She started with wood, then railroad spikes, then scraps of discarded iron. She’s been making crosses ever since. “Birmingham is great for the metal arts and is rich in industrial iron and steel scrap yards—I have no shortage of rusty discarded metal,” she says.
Catherine learned to weld from male friends who saw how overwhelming her vision was. “They knew they better either get out of the way or jump in and help!” They taught her to weld, grind, maintain her machinery, and stay safe. And when she had questions about changing wire or argon, and if no one was around to ask, Catherine got on YouTube and found precise answers. “Gotta love me some YouTube!” she jokes.
Even though our interview was via email, I could almost see Catherine wince as she read the question about what technique or process she uses most. She may think her answer reveals her lack of “formal technical training,” but she answered in her own terms quite eloquently:
All of my welds vary in depth and strength because I am using such a variety of found scrap metal, and I am building some pieces that are relatively small and some much larger. I work with wire to make vines, shavings to make ribbon curls, decorative cast iron from tornado debris to symbolize broken dreams. Industrial drops clustered to make ornate sections, spikes and nails to evoke sacrifice, things like rings and I-beam slices for symbolism and thick bar for the underlying bodies of the crosses. So I am constantly changing the temperature on my welder for the deep and shallow welds.
I also like the rustic look of ugly welds and how it adds to rusty bent nails and corroded bar. I grind lightly over all the surfaces of the finished cross to bring about contrast and definition in the relief.
Before following this path, Catherine worked a lot of jobs from auto parts stocker and waitress, to jewelry designer, framer, faux-finish / mural painter, art supply store manager, illustrator, and commercial artist. “It’s kind of an embarrassing succession of attempts to find my voice as an artist or as a person,” she says. “I’ve had a long, hard road trying to define who I am before this redemptive process found me.”
When she’s scrapping at industrial sites Catherine says she doesn’t experience discrimination, but sometimes men try to be overly helpful—she is “fiercely independent” and prefers to “hopper dive” alone. “I prefer alone because I pick up the most worthless rusty looking bits while they hand me large shiny things I would never use.”
Catherine says she feels this raw material speaking to her, telling its story, and most often a sad one. This is what informs her work. “I’ve found that God is the author of forgiveness and grace and I try to pull that message through my work. The scrap is redeemed into a cross with a much larger story than its humble beginning.”
She calls herself a “devoted up-cycler” who “sees the beauty in the rusted out useless junk from dumpsters and ravines in much the same way God sees purpose in us after we have self-destructed.”
But it’s not just the creation of the crosses it’s the connection it affords with others on a healing path. “Our redemption is a powerful testimony to others. I enjoy the unfolding of the stories of fellow travelers around me. It’s exciting to see the message in my crosses being deeply understood by an injured soul on their journey to healing. Something clicks and I get to see it– ‘THAT is my cross!’ is a common reaction.”
More than as a technical trade, Catherine thinks that a career in the metal arts is exciting for women. “If you like fire and smoke—this is for you. If you like grit and being slightly uncomfortable and love to overcome—this if for you. And, if you are afraid of injury, remember you will burn yourself more with a curling iron that you ever will with a welding torch!”
To her 15-year old self, Catherine would say:
First of all, delay dating and hang around your friends more. No matter what anyone says, college is for you and you don’t want to miss out on it. Your children are going to be the most exciting events that happen to you, so make sure you partner up with someone that is also your best friend and enjoy every little thing so very very slowly. You will make some horrible mistakes in this life, and when God speaks to your heart, follow without question. It will be the greatest adventure you will ever set out on.
To the readers here, I’d say if you’d like to know more about Catherine and her art, visit her website Crosses by Catherine. http://crossesbycatherine.com