Heather Soderberg was a bright, beautiful and curious baby who, from early on, had a fascination with her father’s work in a Flagstaff, Arizona, bronze foundry. At one-year old, her father John gave Heather some soft wax. Hours later she had created a sculpture of what appeared to be five variations of the female form. By the age of two, she had sculpted more than 100 pieces, which her father cast in bronze. At age three, she sold 30 sculptures at her first art show and was hired to sculpt her first commission; she was also showing her work in art galleries from Scottsdale, Arizona to Houston, Texas.
Heather gained national and worldwide attention as a young sculpting prodigy when her story was told by radio broadcaster Paul Harvey and featured in People Magazine, National Geographic World, and the television show “That’s Incredible”.
Heather continued to progress as an artist and was hired for many public, private and museum commissions throughout her childhood, teen and college years. After earning a degree in Criminal Science and Psychology at Northern Arizona University, she decided she needed a sabbatical and moved to the Hawaiian Islands where she became a certified scuba diver. Four years later Heather felt the pull to recommit her life to art and moved to Portland, Oregon to work in a bronze foundry as a welder.
In 2009 Heather bought the foundry she worked at and moved it to the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. As the first woman to own a bronze foundry in the United States, Heather Söderberg’s sculptures have earned her regional and worldwide attention. The move was the catalyst that would propel her work to a meteoric level.
Heather says, “I started a fine art bronze casting foundry to support my sculpting habit. My perfect day is full of warm clay, French music and my fuzzy dog Leif snoring.
“I get a huge amount of interest in my processes,” Heather reports. “People think it’s hysterical that I begin statues out of insulating foam! But, the truth is, I had a major mishap once when an internal welded support for a monument I was working on broke. The piece toppled over onto me, and I almost had to go to the emergency room after getting crushed by the weight. So I formulated new methods that would make the statue both easier to maneuver and also safer to work with if the spirit moves me to work alone into the wee hours of the night!”
Heather’s Sacagawea, Pompi, and Seaman sculptures, commissioned by the Port of Cascade Locks, have gained regional and worldwide attention for their emotional impact. These pieces highlight Heather’s talent as they probe deeply and sensitively into our cultural consciousness to seek those distinctive American elements that together constitute our artistic and cultural heritage.
The artist is fundamentally alone in the creative process, whether he/she is supported and encouraged by other artists and lovers of art, or is solitary. The inner drama, the complex ebb and flow of feelings, hints and glimpses of images and ideas, the inner drive, urges, promptings and doubts — the often fierce, undeniable, gut-deep need to create — are those of individual artists alone, that they must somehow deal with through visions of the beauty and torment of the world.
Artists are meant to probe heaven and hell, good and evil, beauty and ugliness — the full dimension of life on earth, humanity’s relations with itself, with nature, with God, and the universe, as their personal needs and interests dictate.
Heather Soderberg: A Series of Bronze Firsts
Copper in the Arts, January 2013, By Michael Cervin
Heather Soderberg has the distinction of being the first female in the U.S. to own a bronze foundry. This is just the latest in a long line of distinctions over her life which eventually brought her to the shores of the Columbia River in Cascade Locks, Oregon where her Soderberg Gallery & Studio is located. But it’s been a long and winding road.
Her father was a welder working at a bronze foundry in Flagstaff, Arizona and he used to bring Heather to work when she was old enough to crawl. “I was basically raised in a foundry by the wax lady,” she says. “Growing up in the foundry, learning to sculpt in the foundry, and being around all the art was my main inspiration.
She began to work with clay and by age seven her sculpture had inadvertently received national acclaim when two different gallery owners in Arizona and Texas put her work in their respective galleries. This caught the attention of People Magazine, National Geographic World, and the TV show That’s Incredible.
“I was a novelty,” she says, admitting that, though her early work may have been good – Moses holding the Ten Commandments, and sculpting bronze images from Greek mythology – it wasn’t great. Though people bought her work, the young Soderberg remained relatively unfazed by the experience. By age nine she had learned to weld bronze from her dad, something she found she enjoyed. Throughout high school she continued to sculpt and make wax molds, but her early successes eventually gave way to a more practical future in law enforcement.
“As I got older I received a degree in criminal science,” she says, and law enforcement had been in her background from her great grandfather, who was one of the first motorcycle cops in California. She took a job with the U.S. Coast Guard in Maui, a far cry from bronze sculpting, though she still did some sculpting on her own. “It really helped my emotions after a crazy day,” she notes, but she realized after a while that she wanted to get back into the art business. “Working in bronze and sculpting, it was what I was meant to do,” she says.
When the owner was ready to forgo the foundry, Heather decided to purchase it.
“I ended up buying it when the economy was tanking in 2009,” she admits and became the only female foundry owner in the U.S. Soderberg knew that for the business to be viable, she would have to bring about some changes. She downsized the foundry and moved the operation to Cascade Locks from the Portland area, about a 45 minute drive.
“I chose a less expensive area in a different county and a smaller square footage space,” she says. The foundry currently employs five people and she started consulting with other artists to allow them to cast their works, aiming to be “founder friendly.” She’s in the unique position of being able to cast her own bronze works, and to be the foundry of choice for other artists. About 50 percent of her time at the foundry is casting outside work; the rest is up to her. “My studio is right up against the mountains in the Columbia River Gorge. I am frequently not in my studio because of that. I usually get back from hiking later in the day, inspired completely, and I sculpt like a madwoman until the wee hours of night.”
It is Soderberg’s reputation as a bronze sculptor and welder that brings in much outside work to her foundry, including out of state work from New York, and Washington. It may seem odd that East Coast foundries are not the preference for East Coast clients, but her foundry is less expensive, by three times she says, of East Coast foundries. “My main strength is that I have such an extensive history with bronze, and I’m an artist myself. I’m more patient and compassionate towards other clients. I spend extra time so that the artist is happy.”
Another draw is her hands on approach to each project.
“I really get involved and we discuss every aspect of their project. I do most of the final touch up for the foundry pieces. I can fabricate an entire piece out of bronze if I need to.” But like her brief child prodigy days, the experience of being a female foundry owner is something she takes for granted.
It might seem like anyone can learn to weld bronze, but to do it expertly is another matter.
“I have a feel for it,” Soderberg suggests. “I hyper focus my eyes, making everything flow, so I don’t need to do any grinding and tooling of the bronze pieces. I love sculpting and welding but I also love the technology of the TIG welder, the electricity, the energy.”
She casts with Everdur, a silicon bronze, though she has tried other materials with mixed results. “Those bronze materials with less copper and more zinc get smoky and crackle,” she says. “Bronze is my preference and I love welding on bronze,” she freely admits. “Bronze with the silica sand shell is such an old and historical technology,” she says. “They have unearthed and brought up from the bottom of the ocean bronze art from thousands of years ago. Bronze will outlive all of us.”
She has three monuments in Cascade Locks including perhaps her best known work of a stunning image of Sacagawea over-looking the Columbia River. In 2010, the Port of Cascade Locks commissioned Soderberg to create two bronze sculptures of Sacagawea and the dog Seaman, of Lewis and Clark history. These two figures have historical significance in the area as Cascade Locks was a noted stop on Lewis and Clark’s trail. Located adjacent to the Visitor’s Center, they overlook the Columbia River in a beautiful outdoor setting. The statues were unveiled and dedicated on the 205th Anniversary of Lewis & Clark’s return trip through Cascade Locks in 1806.
“Because my monuments are here in town I re-wax them twice a year,” she says. Few artists have that luxury but she treats each bronze piece differently. “If it’s a sea piece, a mermaid, seashells or an animal I tend to lacquer then seal it with a clear coat to give it a glossy look. If it’s more contemporary, like a wildlife, she prefers wax as a finish to give it a more organic feel, utilizing the subtle patina notes with more ferric chloride so that more gold and bronze colors show through. She uses American Scientific in Portland for her patinas.
Of her own bronze work, a full 90 percent is commissioned and clients come from Denmark, Canada, across the U.S., including schools like Washington State where she created a cougar descending down a mountainside, government, and private collectors.
“I’ve worked hard, 80 hour weeks,” she says. “It’s my whole life, so the success is paying off.” Many artists can’t afford to be in multiple galleries and they rely on art shows, but her foundry allows her to create her own pieces at will. “Having the foundry was really the start of my career.”