WORDS Carol Caldwell
Mr. and Mrs. Ben Caldwell are a family and a business. He is the art part, brandishing his mallet and hammer to create stunning copper utensils—these and many other and varied and beautiful copper works. Ben recently completed an outdoor 8-foot sculpture, a large sunflower mirror, and a project for a national coffee company. She is the business end of the enterprise they named Ben & Lael, Inc. Her name is Lael. On Tuesday last, they put the finishing touches on their new studio of 2,300 square feet just outside Pegram, Tennessee, a stone’s throw from Foggy Bottom canoe rentals and the Harpeth Arts Center and Gallery.
“I feel a responsibility to this dying art of coppersmithing so I take on interns and teach classes, some here in the studio and some in Pegram. I just love this area,” Ben says. Lael adds, “When we got this building, we thought we were going to do it ourselves, but realized we were in over our heads, so we called Keith Lightsey of Colour Corps and did exactly what he told us to do, and along with our contractor, Lisa de Araujo Jorge, we created this incredible studio.”
Ben: “He uses bright colors and that’s been so great for us. We also have a fine team that works with us. I was so fortunate to train for this kind of smithing under an incredible artist, Terry Talley, who was dying of cancer and wanted to pass on his trade. Very few people make things out of metal like Terry did, and I do now.”
In their beginning Lael said she made a deal with Ben. She would work and support them while he did his paintings, and he would get a job, any job. Lael: “So, he came home one day in a Domino’s shirt. Ben delivered pizzas every night until 2:00 in the morning and then he would drive two hours a day to go train with Terry. The deal was we had to be self-supporting.”
Ben: “I got into copper because that’s what my mentor, Terry, used. I trained both in silver and in copper. I fell in love with doing it, fell in love with the copper. It was a force greater than myself that got me there; I was like a fish who found the ocean. Whenever I feel the metal, I really feel it! Feels like suspended liquid in my hands. When I’m working with it, it’s sort of like moving clay. I use mallets and hammers; I move it with the hammer. That’s smithing! But you don’t hit copper hot like you do with iron. Copper has so many properties. I get it from industrial suppliers. I get it from roofers. In big 3 ft. by 8 ft. sheets from Atlanta and from California.
“Copper is classified as a noble metal, which is included with silver, platinum, and gold. They mix it with gold to give the gold more strength. It’s cheap, because it’s so plentiful; there are mountains of copper in the world. Rooves, gutters, all kinds of things—a great conductor, in electrical wires. Malleable metal!”
Governor Bredesen’s wife, Andrea Conte, asked Ben to make something out of the copper that was being taken off the Governor’s mansion when it was being renovated, downspouts and gutters. He decided to craft an extra-large flag for the Renovation Room on the lower floor of the residence. “Now we want to do a project called Flags Across America,” Lael says. “The flag will become dismantled as we leave pieces of it with all kinds of people, emigrants from everywhere, when it travels to each new city. We call it The People’s Flag.”
“This picture is about the trophies I was commissioned to make of copper that was preserved from the Registry Building at Ellis Island. My design is from the torch that Lady Liberty holds on high made of copper, covered in gold. The award is titled the 2017 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards.
And this is one of our flags that used to hang in Tower 49 in New York.” Sometimes, he says, I see a space and then, I don’t know how to explain it, but I get a vision of how that flag should be in that particular place . . .”
A vision. Well, isn’t that why we all come to look for America? Ben Caldwell says he is positive art has been his spiritual calling. “We have deep connections with clients who have been collecting our pieces for decades and have passed them on to the next generation of collectors.”
*When my people first emigrated from Georgia over the mountains into the sovereign state of Tennessee, I was five years old. The red brick schoolhouse I enrolled at was called Parmer School. It didn’t take long to figure out that most of the other first graders were cousins, and I wasn’t. I mention this to point out that the eminent coppersmith Ben Caldwell and I are not, as far as we know, related.
For more information, visit www.benandlael.com.