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Bending Metal
This Jacksonville artist packs heat in more than one sense of the word

First appeared in Our State Magazine

It's not unusual for Stephen Zawistowski to spend his days dealing with murderers, drug pushers and thieves. But when the sun sets and Zawistowski returns to his Jacksonville home, he shucks his suits in favor of a heavy leather apron. Then he decompresses in a way that is anything but ordinary.

Here, in the tiny workshop adjacent to his house, he coaxes hard, cold metal into giving up the beauty locked inside. For Zawistowski, his metal art counter-balances the stark evil he touches each day as a law enforcement officer. It brings him comfort and fulfillment. It brings his clients joy and wonder.

Iron and glass
The home Zawistowski shares with his wife, Claire, is spare and sparkling. Wooden floors shine, interesting artwork blends with spots of bright, unexpected color and sun floods the rooms through big, open windows. It is an intensely personal living space, one that reflects the character of its occupants, as well as their artistic bents.

Claire teaches high school music and is the mother of their daughter, Lauren, a college student. She has included her husband's penchant for metal design into her decorating scheme. A large, but curiously delicate, rectangular table of glass with a metal frame stands in the family room, lined with family photos.

One end of the table rests on straight legs that echo the metal tray holding the glass. The other end mirrors a growing tree, with legs shaped as limbs and delicate branches extending like hands held in supplication. The faux leaves have a faint green patina about them, a subtle echo of their living counterparts. The table alternately embodies both strength and delicacy, the man-made juxtaposed with the natural.

This is not the first table Zawistowski has made, but it is one of the projects he loves most. In the adjoining room, on the wall, is another table -- also metal and glass -- that in the beginning made him wonder if he might be good at this. It is one of his earliest works, a large half-moon of glass, supported by metal and fastened directly to the wall.

"Claire looked at it and said, 'You might just have something here,'" Zawistowski says. That project embodied their first real inkling his work could be more than a hobby or a complicated way to lessen the stress imposed by his job.

The road he took
As one of four kids in the family of a career Marine employed as a heavy machinery mechanic at Courthouse Bay (a part of Camp Lejeune), the Zawistowskis traveled far from home, but never strayed from their North Carolina roots. Stephen Zawistowski was born at Camp Lejeune, only a few miles from his present home, but also lived in California and Hawaii.

"When something broke, (Dad) repaired it or we didn't have it," he says. "I think that has a lot to do with how I got started (in metal art)."

The Zawistowskis moved around until his father was sent to Vietnam. Upon his father's retirement, the family settled in Onslow County and he attended Jacksonville High School, which is where he met Claire. After earning a degree in criminal justice from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he found employment at the Hendersonville Police Department, eventually moving on to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. When the SBI asked Zawistowski to go to Jacksonville, he jumped at the chance to return home -- and has been there ever since.

As a veteran law enforcement officer, Zawistowski has worked crime scenes of every imaginable nature. He says that he's never grown accustomed to the deeply dark and disturbing nature of some of the cases he's worked. "I've had the unfortunate opportunity to see dead bodies in 10 counties," he says. "I've witnessed the results of all the big, violent personal crimes, and it gets very old after awhile."

Zawistowski eventually moved to working narcotics and that's essentially what he's spent the largest part of his career doing. Now he's counting down the days until he can retire, with less than two years to go on the job. And he's made the decision that when he hangs up his badge and gun, he'll work full-time with metal, teasing its form to the surface, making things of beauty and function.

Currently, Zawistowski is searching for a large building where he can set up his tools, spread out a bit and work on his projects. A visit to his miniscule workshop and it's easy to understand why he's looking for more space. The tools of his trade are massive, bulky and jammed together, but even though it's tight in his makeshift workshop, Zawistowski perseveres. He needs the break from crime-fighting, the chance to brush up against something pure and simple.

"I got into law enforcement to make things better for people," he says. "With metal work I also make something beautiful for them."

That thing he does
Zawistowski sees form and substance where there is only raw material. His blank canvas might be a hunk of iron, his "brushes and paint" are the tools most commonly found in a blacksmith's shop. But even though much of his work depends on traditional tools, when it comes to designing his creations, the trained cop in him turns to technology.

With a computer program that allows him to develop his prototypes, Zawistowski designs his latest creations -- from wine bottle holders to immense, customized gates -- crafting each part with digital precision before he even enters his workshop.

A neat little cabinet, tall and thin, stands in the middle of the room. The computer screen holds meticulously detailed drawings of each individual cabinet part. In his hand, Zawistowski holds a copper panel stamped with leaves.

"Claire says the leaves need veins," he explains. He shows his visitor another panel. On this one, the leaves are embedded with veins. His wife is right -- the second one looks much better than the first. Zawistowski says he often relies on her judgment, then absently pats the top of the cabinet.

"This part will probably be wood," he says.

Zawistowski hopes to build multiple versions of the cabinet to sell in galleries. He's also working on several other projects -- fiddlehead fern letter openers with the look of old pewter, a massive metal gate with giant butterflies and happy, round flowers that cartwheel across the design.

Zawistowski doesn't force any of his designs. Instead he draws them out, little by little, looking for the right balance, the perfect fit. He may remake a project over and over until he gets exactly what he wants, and his vision may change along the way, but he is relentless in his pursuit of perfection.

And to think, this obsession began with a yard sale.

Finding the artist within
When Zawistowski bought a welder at a local yard sale for $20, he didn't know it would unleash his creative side.

"I bought some rebar (common steel bars, often used to reinforce concrete) and played for hours until I got to where I could use it (the welder)," he says.

After many tries and a few false starts, he produced the half-moon table now affixed to the wall in the Zawistowski's kitchen. Like the sofa table he made for the family room, it also hosts family photos. One from the late 70's shows Stephen and Claire sitting on the beach looking off into the surf, their lives ahead of them. At the time, neither saw "heavy metal" in their future.

Scattered around the Zawistowski home are metal lamps, a holder for multiple candles that twists and turns like a living thing and, on the front porch, a whimsical little dog.

Although he creates some of his pieces because they simply interest him, the bulk of his work thus far has been customized. And if Zawistowski's art can be small, it can also be enormous: He has created a universe of metal gates, each one more fabulous and unexpected than the next.

Dolphins frolic on one, giant crabs face off on another and yet a third features huge shrimp. It's obvious Zawistowski draws much of his inspiration from the ocean. One table, with cattails rising and encircling the glass surface, and a floor lamp that emerges from a bed of water lilies, reinforce his fascination with all things aquatic, which is only natural given his almost life-long proximity to the coast.

But whether he's immortalizing a pair of giant flip-flops on a gate or lending his hand to create grapevine-encrusted doors for a large, customized wine niche, almost everything Zawistowski creates has a purpose.

"A lot of artistic people say that if something has a function, it's not true art," he says. "I disagree."

Zawistowski enjoys making things that people will use. Often, he finds ways to incorporate adaptive reuse in his art, taking old metal and repurposing it into something new and beautiful.

Although he custom designs and makes iron railings on occasion, he prefers the more creative pieces, like the gate with the large Celtic cross he made for the pastor of his church. The cross combines his art and deep religious convictions -- Zawistowski credits his enduring religious faith as a major source of his grounding. Having seen the worst mankind has to offer, he believes the good outweighs the bad. His metal work helps him leave the craziness behind, freeing him to concentrate on the beauty instead.

"If you don't have something else, it's like watching horror movies all day. I decided my life was not going to be like that," Zawistowski says.



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