A student links the seemingly opposite disciplines of studio arts and welding and fabrication engineering technology.
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, except as credited.
Hannah Michelle is at home in the welding lab and in the painting studio. In both places, using her hands to create comes naturally.
Clad in a blue denim jacket and brown double-front canvas pants, the student pulls a helmet over her eager face. Her feet, protected by rugged, leather boots, remain flat on the welding lab’s industrial floor. She reaches for the tool of choice: a slender black welding rod. Moments later, she confidently strikes a piece of metal and establishes an arc. The resulting glow competes with the dark red, orange and yellow flames layered on her helmet. It’s time to create.
In white pants and a short-sleeved blue top, the student wears a mask of anticipation. Her bare feet remain flat on the painting studio’s floor. She extends for the tool of choice: a slender brown paintbrush. Moments later, she dips the brush into a palette of bright colors and confidently strikes the white canvas in front of her. It’s time to create.
Hannah Michelle relishes the apparent dichotomy. The Lewisburg native is seeking both a bachelor’s degree in welding and fabrication engineering technology and an associate degree in studio arts at Pennsylvania College of Technology. For her, the connection is clear between the majors at opposite ends of campus and, at first glance, the spectrum of academic disciplines.
“In engineering, you’re solving problems and coming up with new ideas, and in art, you’re solving problems and coming up with new ideas,” she said excitedly during a break between classes. “Instead of solving a problem with mathematics, there is a creative side to me that I can take and spin the engineering problems with, and often when I’m doing art, I’m thinking about perfect mathematical proportions. It coalesces very nicely.”
Michelle’s desire to link the two disciplines led her to Penn College. That and a discarded cello.
“All welders have some artistic ability because we create.”
Art always has been Michelle’s passion, thanks to growing up around her grandfather’s woodcarvings and charcoal drawings. She gravitated toward artistic endeavors in both her free time and at school. Michelle fondly recalls the plethora of art supplies at Lewisburg High School and using ample space provided by its “art cave” to create inspired projects.
Painting. Weaving. Mixed media. She embraced a variety of mediums to tap and showcase her creativity.
Michelle enrolled at Susquehanna University to formalize her interests. She studied studio art and creative writing. Feeling “cramped” creatively, she left school after a year-and-a-half to become interim director of Top Floor Studio in Lewisburg. She used that time to teach art to kids and work on her own creations.
Enter the cello.
Michelle discovered it one day in a dumpster behind a building. Its time for emanating rich notes had passed, but she knew the dilapidated instrument could still be a source of artistic expression. Inspired by the possibilities, she quickly scooped it up, placed it in her car and sped home to experiment.
“I took the top off of it, took the whole stem off and finished the inside of it,” Michelle said. “I made a chest out of it. When I started putting brackets on, I was like, ‘Wow, metal is interesting.’ I started thinking about all these ideas that I wanted to do with metal. You really need to know how to work with metal to do anything creative with it.”
Unfortunately, Michelle didn’t. Her soldering experience didn’t cut it. Neither did reading a book about welding.
“I had all these ideas that I didn’t know how to implement,” she said. “I didn’t have enough knowledge. I was like, ‘I should go to school again.’”
She knew of Penn College because her late brother, Shaun, graduated from the school in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in computer information technology. A Google search for “welding programs” encouraged her to experience the institution for herself.
Touring the welding facility and interacting with School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies personnel sealed the decision. “They were really enthusiastic about me coming here,” she said.
“Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Hannah was very excited and focused on her desire to come into the welding program, and with her artistic and creative background, it seemed like a natural fit,” recalled David R. Cotner, dean of the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies.
A trip to the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia buttressed Michelle’s decision to develop welding skills. While she enjoyed the museum dedicated to maritime history, one display, in particular, attracted her undivided attention. The glass case included a welding mask, old tools, and black-and-white photos dating to the early 1940s. The contents belonged to Marie Hindsley. Known as “Gravel Gertie,” Hindsley was one of the first women trained and employed at the New York Shipbuilding Corp. in Camden, New Jersey, during World War II.
She was also Michelle’s great-grandmother.
Michelle has faint memories of Hindsley, who died when Michelle was 8 years old. She describes Hindsley as an eccentric, self-sufficient lady and remembers her constructing a treasured dollhouse featuring electricity. Over the years, Michelle learned that Hindsley was once a welder, but the significance of that endeavor didn’t resonate until her museum trip.
“I was like, ‘Wow. She was one of the first lady welders!’” Michelle said. “She was a Rosie the Riveter. It’s neat to have that in your background. Seeing that display got me more excited about welding.”
Her lack of welding expertise added to that excitement during the first weeks of school.
“I didn’t know it involved electricity. I didn’t know there were several different processes,” Michelle said with a laugh. “I didn’t know there were robots that could weld! I love learning, so it was exciting to have all this information coming at me.”
Michelle learned well. She established herself as a Dean’s List student and excelled in the welding lab, conquering stick and oxy-fuel welding before moving on to TIG, flux-cored and robotic welding.
“Being able to use my hands was great, as was learning the theory behind how metal works and how different metals are welded,” Michelle said. “The theory was harder for me to grasp, but the actual physical welding came naturally. I love everything about it: the sound, the smell, the way it looks through your hood!”
The nontraditional nature of the major didn’t faze her. Michelle grew up around four brothers, so being one of just a dozen females working alongside guys in the welding program came naturally. Plus, she could always draw upon the legacy of “Gravel Gertie” for encouragement.
“My great-grandmother being an overall badass lady really inspired me to embrace and further gender equality,” Michelle said. “I like mentioning her to people, especially when it comes to welding, because I think it highlights what women can do when they need to or want to and that women are not limited to certain professions.”
Michelle decided not to limit herself to one degree after committing to the welding and fabrication engineering technology major rather than the two-year welding technology program. The extra time required for the bachelor’s degree presented the opportunity to also seek the associate degree in studio arts.
“If I’m going to be here for a couple more years getting an engineering degree, I decided I would really like to take some art classes,” she said. “And if I’m taking art classes, it might as well go toward something.”
Hannah Michelle’s great-grandmother Marie Hindsley was a tacker in the turret shop at New York Shipbuilding Corp. during World War II, mainly working in areas that required a skillful touch. Hindsley’s welding rods – and some of her other equipment – are displayed at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.
Michelle’s trademarks are an infectious smile and a rattail dread that extends her “wild” red hair halfway down her slender frame. The smile and rattail are hidden in the welding lab, safely camouflaged by her helmet. In the painting studio, the smile brightens the room while the rattail’s tip has been known to daub various colors, creating a fun mess.
Like her physical traits, the link between art and welding is both hidden and pronounced.
“All welders have some artistic ability to an extent because we create,” said Ryan P. Good, instructor of welding and Michelle’s industrial processes teacher. “There is nothing more satisfying to a welder than enjoying the attributes of a perfectly rippled and contoured weld created from our own hand.”
Welders can express more than technical precision by virtue of their creative ability, according to Cotner, who in addition to being a dean is a certified welding instructor with more than 20 years’ experience in the field. He believes creative instincts can produce an enriching experience for welders and positive result for their projects.
“Welding and fabrication often allow for a great deal of creativity and self-expression,” he said. “Those who are more expressive by nature are generally willing to challenge the norm and offer dynamic outcomes to static situations. The more creative approach may allow for cost or time savings that may not have been otherwise attempted.”
Michelle’s painting teacher, Robert F. Pierce, an adjunct instructor of advertising art, doesn’t consider welding to be art but appreciates its potential as a medium of artistic expression. “Welding has been used to create art for as long as it has existed,” he said. “In general, an artist can create with whatever tool is placed in his hands. He just needs to develop a level of competency with the medium; then expression flows.”
Michelle is proof of that. For one class experiment, she wove metal in a flat sheet, bent it around a pipe, welded the seams and curled all the ends. The result was a “super heavy lampshade.” Outside of class, she created three of the 78 “Student Bodies” sculptures that line the campus mall. The abstract human forms were welded from scrap metal. Michelle’s contribution includes a proportional self-portrait that even mimics her hair with braided pieces of metal.
“Everybody in the welding department has taught me so much, and I’ve been very happy with my art classes,” Michelle said. “The best thing about this school is the teachers. We have some really cool equipment and toys, but what’s really kept me here is the teachers.”
As she juggles her studies with a full-time job cooking at the Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport, Michelle expects to be on campus for a few more years. But she is envisioning her post-graduation life.
“I would like to work in the engineering field, working for some sort of renewable energy company,” she said. “I would really like to develop ideas. The metallurgical side of welding engineering is very interesting to me.”
But art will not be an afterthought.
“I could see myself doing the engineering thing, saving a bunch of money and opening an art studio and teaching,” she said.
No matter the route she chooses, Good, her welding instructor, believes the result will be the same: Michelle will prosper. “I believe that, adequately motivated, there isn’t anything that this young lady can’t accomplish,” he said. “It is really just up to Hannah if she is willing to share her talents with industry or take an artistic entrepreneurial route. Whichever she chooses, I have no doubt that she will be successful.”
Michelle hopes the legacy she is establishing at the college will encourage greater interaction between welding and art students and their curriculums. She said the welders would benefit from the sharpened dexterity and self-expression resulting from art courses. As for the art students, she believes a simple walk across campus would leave an impact.
“The art students would benefit from even just seeing the welding lab and understanding that you can work with things other than a pencil or paint brush,” Michelle said.
But she advises them not to visit in white pants and their bare feet. After all, “Gravel Gertie” wouldn’t approve.