Iron Man

Cincinnati sculptor Paul Lashua explores the transformative power of metal.

Paul Lashua works in a world of gray. His domain is a converted storage garage­ — cold in the winter months, hot and stuffy in the summer — on an industrial urban corner in Cincinnati where unadorned, utilitarian structures rise up amid dusty concrete and stretches of steel fencing. Inside is an array of gear —acetylene torches, a small forge, an overhead block-and-tackle rig, a drill press, an assortment of hand tools and various other instruments — all designed to bend, cut and manipulate unpainted, unfinished metal.

“For me, art is very personal,” he says. “There are things a writer might express with words, but I do it with form. That’s why I choose abstract art versus literal or figurative art. For me, it’s more about process, and leaving that process open — and leaving the work itself open to interpretation.”

At 46, Lashua knows all about process. His journey to this life has been marked along the way by a few geographic and professional detours. Born in Midland, Michigan, and raised in Buffalo, New York, and Pittsburgh, he earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural design from the University of Detroit in 1988. But after spending several years working at architectural firms in Ft. Lauderdale and Cincinnati, he grew restless.

“I just did not want to sit and draw other people’s ideas and do detail work for 10 or 12 years until I might get a chance to do some design,” he says. “I really just enjoy working with my hands. The office environment seemed kind of confining, and the projects seemed way too long. I prefer more of the shorter-term gratification versus waiting years and years for a project to come to fruition.”

What followed was an unlikely dual career track. On one hand, Lashua learned metalworking skills — blacksmithing, welding and related trades — under the tutelage of local mentors. At the same time, he logged in four years of social work, first at Hamilton’s Bunker Hill Haven Home for Boys, and later at St. Joseph Orphanage in Cincinnati.

Lashua went on to earn an M.F.A. in metalsmithing from Miami University in 1999. “When I got out of graduate school,” he recalls, “I knew I wanted to combine my architectural design background with my newfound metals knowledge and do architectural metalwork.”

Newly married in 2001 to his wife, Patty, Lashua cobbled together enough full-time and part-time metal work to pay the bills. By 2005, he had established enough of a clientele to open his own studio.

Much of Lashua’s work suggests themes of motion, growth and transformation from one state to another. The linear pieces may be serpentine, but they inevitably point upward. Many of the planar pieces are arranged in a series of curved layers, each one more expressive than the last. Corners are often tapered and forged into rippled configurations, reminiscent of flags dancing in the wind. Even the static pieces seem to be moving and searching.

The artist’s installations can be found in a variety of locations around greater Cincinnati. “Branching Out” is an abstract tree of forged and painted steel that stands in front of the Towers of Kenwood office complex. “Circle Chalice” is a 5-by-5-foot cross overlooking the front entrance of Northern Hills Fellowship, a Unitarian church in nearby Springfield Township. The sweeping and colorful “Reflections Wall” is a 5-by-14-foot combination of steel, copper and bronze decorating the interior of the Congregation Beth Adam synagogue in Loveland.

Elsewhere in the U.S., Lashua’s “Caring Spirit” — an illuminated sculptural fountain that’s 10 feet high — greets visitors near the entrance to the Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado located in Grand Junction. In honor of his great uncle, the original curator at Winterthur — the museum of American decorative arts located in Winterthur, Delaware — Lashua built and donated a wrought-iron bench that was recently installed in one of the gardens on the museum grounds.

“I love the whole craftsmanship part of what I do, but at the same time, that can become a trap,” says Lashua. “It can be an opportunity for the perfectionist in me to rear his head. The thing that I’ve started to realize is that I’m the only one who’s going to react that way. I could look at every single piece I’ve done and say, ‘Aw, jeez, look at that little imperfection.’”

His challenge, then, is to look beyond the tiny flaws and loosen his grip on the work for the sake of the bigger picture. “If I’m choosing this to be my life’s work, I don’t want it to be work. I want it to be my life,” he says. “And I want to enjoy it. Yes, there are frustrations, but most of those frustrations have to do with how I approach the work. It’s not the work itself. The steel isn’t doing anything to me. If I can’t get it to bend a certain way or behave in a certain way, I need to just back off, let it go and let it be what it wants to be.”

Perhaps what inspires Lashua most is the unmistakable sense of power that comes with the act of taking a mere idea and bringing it to life with some of the strongest materials on earth.

“I know a lot of people would take issue with this idea, but it’s almost god-like,” he says. “You are creating something that never existed before. That’s just a very important thing that keeps me going. I don’t have children, but these are my creations.

“These pieces,” he adds, “do have lives of their own, and they continue to redefine themselves based on who sees them and who experiences them.”