Merlene Davis: Work of Salvisa sculptors featured in Arkansas Civil War exhibit

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 22, 2012 

The story of how Scot and Laura Kellersberger met and married is just as improbable as how their artwork depicting black Union soldiers found a home in Freedom Park in Helena, Ark., which is designated as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

"We met and married in Germany," said Scot, who was a helicopter pilot there for the U.S. Army in 1989.

"I was visiting my sister whose husband was in the military," said Laura.

It wasn't love at first sight, but it was a love that would endure several household moves from overseas to several states including Hawaii, Washington State, and North Carolina before finally settling in Salvisa, Ky., with their four children in 2006.

They grew fond of Kentucky while Scot was stationed at Fort Campbell earlier in his career.

Neither of them, however, was a professional artist who earned income through their creative genes when the settled in Salvisa.

"We moved here without a job or anything," Scot said. "We put a lot of thought into how much we wanted our military retirement to be worth. Here it was worth a lot more. It allowed us to be more choosey about what we wanted to do."

Because Scot, 52, had worked as an aircraft mechanic before becoming a pilot, functionally working with metal was not foreign to him.

Scot's brother, a metal hobbyist, planted a seed with Scot which grew once they arrived in the Mercer County countryside, Laura explained..

"I didn't consider myself an artist when we came here," he said. "I grew with the thought of artists as your worst nightmare if your daughter comes home with one. It was a stretch to even consider myself an artist."

Nevertheless, he built a shop on their property and began to transform metal into art.

"The truth is, I think he didn't want to get a job," she said laughing.

"I really enjoyed wearing grubby clothes," he said.

At that time, Laura, 43, worked part-time in an art gallery in Frankfort, where she learned the business side as well as what customers wanted. The couple got involved with the Kentucky Crafted program in the Kentucky Arts Council and soon realized their art could be a viable means of income for the family.

"I had so many back orders for work, I said, 'Honey, you have to help me,'" Scot said.

It is Laura's eye and abstract flare, he said, and his ability to make the art functional that has made Phoenix Creative Metal a successful business.

"Out of the ashes come the new," Scot said of the name. "On the pieces we do now, it would be hard to tell where one person's influence starts and another stops.

"We take visions of the world around us and then recreate them — using fire and metal and different techniques — into pieces of art."

By the end of 2007, following a tragic year in which one of their sons died, they began attending arts shows featuring their benches and chairs and renderings in nature as well. So, how did their business grow from showings in the region to a commission in Arkansas?

In June, they were showing three-dimensional pieces in Francisco's Farm Arts Festival in Midway. People came by to admire and to purchase. Among them were Joseph and Maria Brent, owners of Mudpuppy & Waterdog, Inc., a consulting firm in Versailles that specializes in planning and preserving public history, especially Civil War sites.

The couple had been searching the Internet for artists who work with metal and were having little success.

"Then we saw their artwork and said this is a real possibility," she said. "They had the right style and technique."

The consortium in Helena agreed, so the Brents visited Phoenix Metal and shared their plans for the Civil War development, which could generate $9 million in revenue from tourism.

"They seemed very excited," Maria Brent said.

They were. In fact, Scot Kellersbergers started working on the design immediately.

"I worked on the design that night," Scot said, "and for the next day or two. I did a half-scale model and got over zealous, pushing other things aside."

The plan was for the Kellersbergers to create several metal figures of black Union soldiers to commemorate the hundreds of refugee slaves who went to Helena in hopes of obtaining freedom.

Helena was captured by Union forces in June, 1862, and, for a time, became the only Union-controlled place in an otherwise Confederate Arkansas. Slaves left the plantations in droves, flocking to the encampment and building temporary shelters. The numbers soon became overwhelming.

In Helena, Union Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, noticing that the Confederate Army was using slave labor to obstruct his Army, began issuing freedom papers to the slaves that had their names and the names of their former owners on them. He deemed the slaves confiscated contraband of war and helped them to find safe passage through Union lines to the North.

After the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863, some of the slaves enlisted in the Union army. On July 4, 1863, black soldiers helped to successfully defend the city in the 1863 Battle of Helena.

Freedom Park in Helena will feature five exhibits highlighting the black experience in Helena during that time, including escape from slavery, becoming contraband, freed and some enlisted men.

The Kellersbergers' art will depict a line of life-size soldiers including an officer, two riflemen shooting, one rifleman reloading, one wounded soldier and one soldier assisting the wounded soldier.

They started with flat pieces of Cor-ten steel, a weathering steel seen on bridges and sculptures, which was then pounded and shaped. Scot welded the pieces together, making the sword blade and barrels of the rifles out of stainless steel.

The most detailed of the figures is the wounded soldier, Scot said, because they wanted visitors to identify with that man. Even though wounded, the soldier maintains a grip on his rifle. The piece weighs about 250 pounds.

"The parents will look at the wounded soldier, but the kids will look at the guns and swords," Scot said.

The installation will take place Nov. 27 and 28, giving the couple enough time to make three more pieces — a man, woman and child leaving their home to follow the Union Army — which the consortium requested.

All in all, the Kellersbergers are glad they found a home in Salvisa. In addition to establishing a home and a studio there, they have helped establish an arts gallery in Harrodsburg so that artists in Mercer County don't have to go elsewhere to show their work.

It is similar to the help they received when they ventured into the world of art.

"I do miss some of the culture and food choices, but there are things here like the community theater for our daughter and we are in the Arts Council for Mercer County. And it is so beautiful here," Laura said.

"Everybody knows us as the crazy metal people," she said, a sure sign the family has not only found their gift, but also a permanent home.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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