Iron Bake Sale 

Art-welding program, bumped by computer tech, needs to raise funds for a new home.

In the new "ownership society," we'll all be expected to provide for our own education, healthcare, and retirement. It's already begun at Contra Costa College, where students in the art-welding class have raised about $1,000 over the last two years to pay for supplies by selling cookies, sodas, candlesticks and garden decor. This semester's holiday sale, December 7 through 10, has a more urgent purpose: The class is preparing to find itself a new home off-campus.

CCC, which is focused on helping its graduates prepare for gainful employment, is betting on computer technology -- not the arts or trades. It plans to consolidate its expanding computer sciences program in a spanking new facility, all clean and bright and wired. But there's something in the way: possibly the best art-welding program in the Bay Area. Lucy Snow's twice-weekly studio class mixes artistes, PG&E welders, art majors, and working folks, then turns them loose on scrap iron.

The art and science of fusing metal into metal can be accomplished using oxy-acetylene gas torches, 220-volt electric arcs, or MIG guns. The process of gas welding is like a tiny firework display. A spray of sparks dances away from the torch tip as two cherry-red pools of metal grow and fuse. Arc welding is dirty and primal. Stinky smoke billows as the powerful arc eats into coarse iron. MIG-ing is like a glue gun for metal. Bzzt bzzt bzzt, as you quickly tack together metal parts. It's all dirty and noisy, closer in spirit to auto bodies and refrigerator innards.

The art-welding program is the bastard child of Contra Costa's dwindling industrial arts and trades program and its small but established fine arts department. It's housed in a low-profile facility at the top of the campus that's shared by welding, robotics, auto body classes, home maintenance, and appliance repair classes. For artists experimenting with materials and forms, CCC has a dream studio: fifteen booths equipped with work benches, lights, exhaust fans and welders, several free-standing MIG and arc machines, and the kind of brutal, heavy equipment for shearing, bending, and folding that takes a good deal of institutional will and physical force to acquire -- and to move.

But it has to go. In eighteen months or so, says Williams McKinley, vice president of the college, welding will be ensconced with the arts in the newly retrofitted building. What happens between this April and then is still very much up in the air. "It's equipment-intensive, so it's difficult to up and find a spot for it," he says.

Lucy Snow has taught the class since 1999 as a part-time instructor, finally taking over the shop from the certificate welding instructor who'd put in thirty years. When he retired, the certificate program limped along for a couple years before it was axed in a 2002 round of budget cuts. Now, the hulking equipment is in the service of abstract iron forms and steel flowers.

Meanwhile, CCC's computer technology program is growing, spread like the islets of Langerhans throughout the campus. That big, beautiful shop is too attractive.

"Our certificate welding program hasn't offered classes in there for about a year and a half," McKinley says. "The facility is woefully underutilized, and that affects our ability to get state funds to remodel and build new buildings."

The welding studio is slated to close mid-April and will be relocated in the art building when an eighteen-month retrofit is completed. But there's no interim space available on campus. While McKinley looks for shop space at local secondary schools or community colleges, Snow is searching for a commercial rental or shared space for the class, which has a committed core group of about twenty students who've formed the Welders Art Guild to raise money -- and raise the class' profile with the CCC administration. WAG's fund-raising could supplement the school's budget for an offsite shop and keep the class alive.

In the long term, connecting welding to the rest of CCC's arts classes will be a good thing, Snow thinks. "We'd have more lab time, and I can see us getting together with the ceramics and bronze casting people, doing collaborative projects," she says. It also could attract other art students to the medium.

But in the short term, she says, "It's crazy. I've learned a lot about detachment from the whole process."

Indeed. With California's education spending cut to the bone and the community college system bearing the brunt of cuts, a teacher there needs an iron stomach to survive.

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