Inside Sean Ahern's tool-filled workshop off Morrison Drive, the delicate stalks of a flower curling around the beams of a gate seem out of place. Hammers, stacks of dark pieces of metal, and several forges are just a few of the tools Ahern uses to create ornamental, functional, and sculptural pieces. "If it's not heavy, hot, and dirty, I'm not interested," he says.
Forging materials such as wrought iron, bronze, copper, and steel, Ahern creates interior and exterior structures including fountains, furniture, lighting, gates, stairways, fireplaces, wine cellars, and arbors for commercial and residential clients. He explains the act of forging as heating and shaping the metal into a one-of-a-kind piece. "We heat it up and then use hammers to shape and bend," he says. "The anvil is the thing you hammer it on, the big metal block with a horn shape on the end, also the thing that the coyote always tried to drop on the road runner." Each piece is unique because it isn't made from a cast, but from an architectural drawing.
Ahern doesn't usually start his projects with a specific idea in his mind. "Architectural design, interior design, landscape, artwork, and furniture all should work as one. So if I'm asked to design a gate, railing, lighting, or furniture, I want to be sure that it works together. It's not really about boundaries, it's more like guidelines, and the fun of it is the ability to add an artist twist when we can." He visits clients' homes to get a feel for the space and then returns to his shop, where he creates drawings for the design. Then comes the hot and dirty fun.
A native Charlestonian, Ahern was always drawing when he was young. An art teacher in high school encouraged his creativity, and he went to college in Atlanta to study painting. "That lasted until the second semester in college when I found the three-dimensional world," he says. "Then I discovered metal, and it was like the fog cleared." After college he moved to France to get his master's and eventually returned to the Lowcountry to teach. Ahern says, "I love teaching, but designing and creating will always be my major desire."
Cattail railings and gates shaped like bamboo reflect Ahern's botanical influences. "I want to bring some modernism to the traditional Charleston style," he says. An abstracted sweetgrass basket that began as a model for a larger piece reflects this desire for a modern take on a historic object. The piece feels alive, bending and curving in a style that is full of movement. There is symmetry to his work that is both elegant and functional. Ahern's gates are more than structures to keep people out — their textural quality draws visitors in.
In between projects, Ahern continues to sculpt for pleasure, and he has amassed a collection of pieces that will be exhibited at Barsa this week. Two of the pieces included in the show are large I-beam structures that were transformed into life-size sculptures of a zipper and a belt. They are solid, heavy, almost cold sculptures from the back, but when you circle around the front, a flawless zipper with delicate teeth made of hammered metal are a welcome surprise. For another piece, a belt with smooth curves calls out to be touched — a delicate, playful twist on a dense object, it's function and fun all in one.