Wonders of Welding

Gateway Sculpture MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino

By Charles McChesney
Bob Dylan welds.

Yes, that Bob Dylan — the one who in 2016 became the first musician to be honored with a Nobel Prize in literature. His work has been exhibited in a London gallery and a new piece, “Portal,” is now on permanent display in Maryland, at the new MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino.

Ore As Core

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in 1941, Dylan was 6 when his family moved inland to Hibbing, Minn., at the center of the Mesabi Range. That area is still the chief iron ore mining district in America and apparently still a part of Dylan’s identity and creativity.

Dylan left Minnesota in 1961 to hitchhike to New York City and on to a new life in folk music. With songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” he became a cultural icon before the decade was out.

Five decades on, he continues to tour and record. In March, he released his 38th studio album. Music is not the only medium in which he works. Dylan has had gallery showings of his paintings, and in 2013 his metalwork gates were featured at Halcyon Gallery in London. 

Dylan’s metalwork sculptures are constructed from found objects, an art term for items not thought of as art. His gates at the London exhibition included wrenches, pliers, parts of a hand-crank meat grinder, bits of farm implements and other pieces of iron and steel that the welder thought made an interesting combination. Paul Green, Halcyon’s president, told the BBC that Dylan designs the works and decides which objects will be used. “He does some welding himself and has one or two people to help him, but he is intimately involved in the whole process.”

Now In The U.S.A.

The artist’s American metal sculpture is on display at the recently completed MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino in Oxon Hill, Md., near Washington, D.C. The 26-foot by 15-foot gateway marks the casino entrance and includes 120 found objects, most dating from 1880 to 1920. They include an anchor, a propeller, a cleat, a hook, chain links and other found items, as well as a metal crab and the Black Buffalo trademark that appears on Dylan’s metalworks.

The gate is impressive, according to Scott Van Pelt, vice president — sales, at GAWDA member Roberts Oxygen, of Rockville, Md. Van Pelt says that upon seeing the gate, he was struck by the quality of the welding. “The welds are not ‘perfect;’ they are a real representation of industry welds. There was no effort to clean them or hide them; they were part of the art.”

Iron Attraction

Dylan’s own words have expressed an attraction to met- alworking. “I’ve been around iron all my life, ever since I was a kid. I was born and raised in iron ore country — where you could breathe it and smell it every day. And I’ve always worked with it in one form or another,” he said at the London gallery opening. Fifty years ago, he told an interviewer, “I’m from someplace called Iron Range. My brains and feeling have come from there.”

Dylan also has explained his interest in gates as a sculpture subject, saying, “Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”

The Art Process

Mark Myers, an Annapolis, Md., art consultant and owner of Atlantic Arts, worked on the art collection for the resort. He said the resort piece began not long after Dylan’s London gates exhibit. As he and MGM’s leaders considered art to fill the resort space, they noted that Maryland law requires one to pass through a gate or portal before entering a casino. That’s when Dylan’s gate work, “kind of emerged as the direction we wanted to go. We said this is a perfect analogy, a perfect location.”

Myers worked with a representative for the artist. He recalls how there was a fair amount of conversation on the design, and that Dylan selected found objects that would ground the artwork in its location on the banks of the Potomac River. Myers says Dylan’s team then “laid out all the pieces on the floor and sent photographs. Then things moved around and we had a few comments; then we’d see another iteration and another iteration. The hand of the artist was obvious, as the thing just tightened up in resolution. “

As the composition came together it really began to flow from next to next. Early on it was little bit more a random group of pieces. I could definitely see the hand of the artist in the progression of composition,” Myers remembers.

While many in show business dabble in art, often painting, Myers observes that there is depth in Dylan’s work. “There is content there. It’s not just decorative.” 

“Portal,” Bob Dylan’s gateway sculpture of “found objects” for the MGM National Harbor in Maryland, opens onto the resort’s casino. Credit: Robb Scharetg.

Dylan, seen in his California workshop, is best known for his work in song, but also paints and has been welding for years. Credit: MGM National Harbor.

Some of the “found objects” Dylan incorporated into “Portal,” include a hook, a lug wrench, gears, a cleat, chains and, if you look closely, a metal crab. Credit: Scott Van Pelt.