Sunday, January 13, 2008

Woodland firm combines etching and granite for unique art displays

Bending stone
Woodland firm combines etching and granite for unique art displays
By Crystal Lee/Woodland Daily Democrat
Article Launched: 01/06/2008 07:45:25 AM PST

Dale Torcato looks over the upper water reservoir on a granite creation by Aquarius Lazer Etching. (Deo Ferrer/Woodland Daily Democrat) Typically, anything likened to the notion of bending stone implies an impossible task. There is a place in Woodland, however, that openly defies the analogy.
At Aquarius Laser Etching and Design, owner Hans Hartmann has discovered a way to curve slabs of granite to create concave pieces of art, such as the massive 17-foot-long, 9 1/2-foot-tall blue whale water feature he has been working on for a client in Southern California.

The piece is the company's "biggest" achievement yet, both literally and figuratively, combining three innovations on a grand scale.

It started in 2002 when Hartmann, a retired welder, decided to take a "bold step into a more creative arena and purchased one of the first commercially proven laser etching machines," it says on the company Web site. With a bit of experimentation, Hartmann developed a company that produces unique art pieces for public, private and commercial display.

The company itself has been in Woodland for six years. Today, designers can take any image and transfer it on to stone, glass, wood or metal, using an etching machine. Artists then add color to the pieces by painting each one by hand. Finally, a clear sealant is added to protect the image.

A few years later, and Hartmann, who friends call "MacGyver" for his tireless creativity in making things work, started tinkering with adding water to the mix.

He designed a prototype using a flat slab of granite, etched with water-colored Koi fish, and designed the mechanisms for getting water to flow continuously down the surface of the stone for a shimmering, ethereal underwater effect.

"People just started asking us: Hey, can we run water over this granite? And we were just doing etchings, so I said, 'No, we don't do that,'" Hartmann explained. "But when people keep asking you when you hear that about 20 times, you go, 'Well, maybe. ...'"

Once he tackled that challenge, Hartmann said, a longtime client asked if he would customize an enormous water feature to put against a curved wall in the company's lobby.

To make a waterfall of that size and have it hug the wall, Hartmann would have had to piece together several panels of flat granite, creating an imperfect curvature, and the "MacGyver" of Woodland was not satisfied with that.

While moving slabs of granite for another project, however, Hartmann noticed the weight of the stone, with a person carrying it on either end, was causing a slight bend in the middle. A fiberglass backing, which is added during the manufacturing stage for reinforcement, was preventing the granite from snapping.

If carried with the reinforced backing facing away from the ground, or at a wrong angle, granite will break instantly from its own weight.

Of course, Hartmann's next thought was to see how far he can bend the stone before it breaks.

With enough pressure, he discovered, stone could bend quite far enough to build that 17-foot-long, 9 1/2-foot-tall, blue whale waterfall.

"I'm always kind of I don't know, an inventor, if you will. I'm always thinking of better ways to do things," Hartmann said.

This week, Hartmann transported the colossal piece to Southern California to assemble it himself.

Although laser art isn't cheap, the beauty, preciseness and customization of Aquarius' products have kept some loyal customers.

"I think it's very unique stuff," said Jim Lee, a friend of Hartmann's. Lee has at least 10 large pieces in his home.

"I hardly have any," Hartmann admitted.

The small company employs just two graphic designers, two artists, and Hartmann himself - and they still work with only one etching machine.

Brandon Nguyen, one of the designers, says the company has every potential for rapid expansion, especially if it is marketed toward celebrities.

"We are going to be doing Anna Nicole Smith's grave (memorial)," Nguyen said. "We did some of her work before - like in her bedroom, there's a portrait of her."

But Hartmann seems to be taking it all in stride. His next goal is to produce more affordable kitchen backsplashes.

"It's not like our products are real cheap," he said, explaining that a customized 24-by-18 inch backsplash now goes for about $1,000, which a lot of people can't afford. "They like it, but $1,000 is a lot to put a piece of art behind your cooktop."

So Hartmann plans to start etching backsplashes 10 at a time. They would no longer be custom designs, he said, but the price could drop by half.

Just like MacGyver, Hartmann always has a solution.

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