Heavy metal

John Septien’s welding class

David Luke welds an abstract piece of steel art in the Advanced Welding and Art class offered by TMCC at Reed High School.

David Luke welds an abstract piece of steel art in the Advanced Welding and Art class offered by TMCC at Reed High School.

Photo By David Robert

The sound of a hammer pounding steel on an anvil rings through the air, calling to mind images of an old-time smithy. An enormous overhead exhaust fan starts up like a jet engine. The smell of burning steel fills the air, and the iron dust thrown off by grinders carries the flavor of blood. Machines of arcane use, metal tables and tools populate the classroom at Reed High in Sparks.

At the front of the room stands the teacher, John Septien. The class is Advanced Welding and Art, offered by Truckee Meadows Community College. The students are of mixed gender, age and skill. All have taken the beginning Welding and Art class. This classroom is the primary place for locals who want to express themselves with metal to learn about welding.

Septien came up through the ranks as an industrial welder, and he teaches techniques used in that business to make high-strength welds, even though students’ art projects aren’t subjected to the same stresses as a bridges or buildings.

Septien’s a compact, goateed man with graying hair and several earrings. He looks more like a biker than a typical instructor and speaks in a firm voice of indeterminate accent. He also smiles a lot.

The small class is popular. Usually, it’s full. It’s also wide-ranging, with Septien teaching safety techniques and the use of metalworking tools—like the forge, the brake (for bending sheet metal), and even the plasma cutter, which goes through steel like a hot knife through butter. In the beginning class, he also teaches design concepts, like “negative space,” and in the first class, each student is required to make a piece of abstract art.

“Students come for a lot of reasons,” he says. “Some come because they have latent artistic ability and they haven’t been able to express it. They get in here and it’s, ‘Heat, torches, fire—hey, this is cool.'”

This advanced class includes some people who’ve already achieved a measure of artistic success, and at least one has won awards in local art competitions. One year, Septien’s students swept the prizes in the sculpting category of the student art show. Many have expanded on the skills learned from their first projects to develop new ideas. Wesley Rodrigue, the young man pounding on the anvil, wanted to build armor (picture knight-in-armor armor). Jack Taylor wanted to incorporate metal into his raku ceramic pieces. As a remodeling contractor, he only gets to put three or four hours a week into his metalworking. “That’s my job—this is my passion,” he says, as he cuts a notch in a thin tube of copper.

Some of Septien’s students have achieved a certain level of financial success with their art. Locals might recognize Dave Boyer’s name. He built the wind-driven kinetic sculptures on the light poles in Reno’s Truckee River Arts and Culture District. That contract was worth $40,000. Tom Shearer has developed quite a reputation locally for his furniture designs and abstract sculptures and has done commissioned work in California.

Septien says the classes give him a sense of gratification. “I get to see my students be successful, to create a piece they can hold in their hands.”

The students find satisfaction for a lot of reasons. David Luke, who’s working on an abstract piece, says he finds it challenging and, to some extent, relaxing.

“This is something totally different from what I do in the office," he says. "[Learning] metals, equipment, processes—there’s a whole world out there."