Copper artist David Burns holds a copper leaf for one of his art pieces at his studio in Sacramento, California. - 1093532

'A life of its own'

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In his tool-packed workshop in Rough and Ready, Calif., David Burns creates a copper forest that will never die.

Twisted vines and tropical leaves sprout out of shiny metal sheets. A customized pneumatic hammer transforms plain pipe into gnarled trunks.

With tin snips, Burns crafts delicate autumn leaves in luminous shades of coppery red and gold. He solders stalks of copper "bamboo" one node at a time, then hones and polishes each piece to perfection.

Burns' Copper Gardens grow out of his imagination, but his functional sculptures have taken root throughout Northern California.

His one-of-a-kind gates adorn homes and businesses. His tables and light fixtures stir constant conversation.

"Copper takes on a life of its own," he said. "It changes with time, but has this great lasting beauty.

"People want to touch it, to feel it, to connect," he added. "As an artist, that really tells me something."

Burns, 68, makes every piece to order. Among his recent pieces was a large driveway gate featuring stylized bamboo for the Marin County, Calif., home of rock singer-guitarist Bob Weir.

Burns' Copper Gardens displays draw crowds at major Northern California home shows. His work is a staple at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show and was featured at this year's California State Flower and Garden Show in Sacramento.

During Labor Day weekend, he'll be part of Truckee, Calif.'s Arts and Crafts Festival.

Kim and Stafford Matthews of Tiburon, Calif., first saw Burns' work several years ago at the San Francisco show.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Kim Matthews, who commissioned a bronze gate — Burns occasionally works in metals other than copper — for their home on San Francisco Bay. "He was so accommodating and dedicated. He's totally into it. And I can't tell you how many people stop by our front yard to admire the gate. It's absolutely fabulous."

A former race car driver, contractor and master woodworker, Burns turned to copper art after a personal epiphany.

About 15 years ago, he took a break from a massive wood deck project to accompany his wife, Annie, at the time a flight attendant, on a flight to Rome.

"I was sitting in front of the Pantheon, waiting for Annie to return from another flight," Burns said. "I was looking at this building that had lasted thousands of years. I realized that deck I was building back in California wouldn't even be recognizable in 50 to 100 years. I had always been a wood guy, but I decided I had to do something that would last."

He started experimenting with metals. A friend asked him to make a garden gate, and Burns became intrigued by copper.

"Everything about working with copper is weird and different," he said. "But the results can be unbelievable."

After some trial and error, he showed some copper garden gates and outdoor art at the Nevada County Fair in Grass Valley, Calif.

"I got 600 inquiries at that first fair," he said. "We had people standing six deep to see our booth. That's when I realized I had hit on something."

In his machine shop and studio, Burns works many hours each day.

"Once he gets started on a design, he goes at it," said Annie Burns. "He's out there seven days a week, from early morning into the night. I have to drag him out for dinner."

"He works very, very hard, but that's really acceptable to me," she added. "We're both creative people, and I understand that passion. When he's not working, he's thinking about designs, too. I would much rather have him doing something he loves than bitching about the office every night."

Burns occasionally teaches copper classes at his home in Rough and Ready, which has a 3,300-square-foot machine shop and a commanding view of California's Central Valley.

"Everybody wants to learn how to braze, to join the pieces. That's easy," he said. "It's the finish work that's hard. That takes a lot of time and continual practice. I'm always experimenting, coming up with better ways to do things."

He offered a maple leaf as an example, working the lobes and veins as he talked.

"The leaves are so complex," he said. "Each little edge, each indentation, needs to be worked and finished. You want it to look almost real, but not quite. You could spend an hour on a single leaf."

Often, scores of leaves will be part of a single gate. Reflecting the hours of work and high cost of copper (4-foot lengths of plumber's copper pipe and tubing cost $10 to $90, depending on diameter and thickness), the full-size gates start at $2,800. Large custom jobs range up to $40,000. Burns also makes small ornamental pieces such as light sconces or leaf accents, starting at about $250.

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