Sean Cusack of Sheet Metal Alchemist featured by Ignite.Me is a blog and discussion community dedicated to art and forward-thinking ideas. Their core principles are openness, inclusion, and human connection. They believe that everyone has a creative spark inside, and that the world is a better place when we follow our passions and share them with others. The site was founded by a group of individuals who support the arts as a catalyst for creative collaboration.

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Sean Cusack of Sheet Metal Alchemist


A few days ago, a friend of mine recommended I check out Sean Cusack’s work. Sean’s the lead artist for Oakland-based metal sculpture company, Sheet Metal Alchemist. On looking through pictures of his art, the words “raw, dangerous beauty” came to mind. He mixes the warmth of fire and light with the coldness of twisted metal, an aesthetic that piques my curiosity and draws me in for more.

His sculptures take us away from the everyday, to places outside our comfort zones. If I stood beside one of his fire-breathing sculptures on a chilly Burning Man night, I’d probably feel like I’d migrated to a different time and space, perhaps an alien planet in the year 2075 or a Viking myth in the year 975.

Fenrir by Sheet Metal Alchemist

Photo by Sean Cusack
“Fenrir” by Sean Cusack

The elements of surprise he and his crew are embedding in the four works they’re making for Burning Man 2013 will bridge the gap between other worlds and this one, grounding us in the now through creepy carnival humor.

I’m looking forward to experiencing Sean’s work on the playa this year. I’m intrigued by his sculptures and also by the generosity of his mission. He’s not just out to make good art (which he does); he’s doing his best to inspire and teach anyone who’s interested in learning.

The team had the opportunity to interview Sean Cusack to learn more about his work and the philosophy that drives his innovation, creativity, and exploration.

What can you tell us about the four projects you’re working on for Burning Man 2013?

We’re making a set of “midway” style carnival games for Burning Man this year. One piece called “Zolterno” is a fortune teller who catches on fire. The “Flaming Frog Launcher” gives players a fiery reward when they launch a steel frog onto a lilypad. The other two projects are from my girlfriend, Lara Edge’s arsenal. We are trimming them up together. One is a strongman-style high striker. The harder players hit a piston, the more fire cannons ignite. The other is a bunny burner, a dunk tank for cute cotton bunnies…except they fall into a pit of fire instead of water. All four projects will be placed alongIllumination Village’s Esplanade presence this year.

Metal sculpture by Sheet Metal Alchemist

Photo by Sean Cusack
“Zolterno,” part of a Burning Man 2013 art installation

I’ve been a hobbyist metal worker for quite awhile. However, upon moving to the Bay area about six years ago, I got involved with the fire art community and turned my college degree of chemical engineering from a means to prevent fires in large, industrial, chemical plants into a way to create carefully controlled and beautiful fire effects. This interest has expanded over time. About a year ago, I quit my full time job to dedicate myself to art.What was the moment when you decided to become an artist?

What inspires or motivates your work?

The simplest explanation is that I like to make people happy. I like to do that by helping people realize that they can be the ones who build those “impossible” structures you see all over the place.

Education and practical experience are important elements when it the crew I like to lead. When we are building large, public installations, I like to bring in novices and let them try (and sometimes fail!) to make awesome creations. Usually, they are not only affected by the outcome of the art piece but also by the excitement of actually building something instead of just running an angle grinder or cleaning a shop. I purposely focus on designs that can be completed within a reasonable time using a few skilled laborers so that we can make use of a lot of outside novice help.

Finally, I love making interactive sculptures because nothing makes people happier than doing something that generates a fireball.

Tell us about your team.

There are 2 pieces to this answer. I run a company called Sheet Metal Alchemist which focuses on targeted installation artwork for restaurants, corporations, events, etc. The people that help me during these projects are experienced, some of the most talented I’ve ever met. We keep our team small to get projects done fast.

We have access to tons of the latest tools (waterjet, laser cutting, etc.) and have a great deal of experience in CAD modeling using both parametric and organic, generative modeling techniques. When we are doing a project for a profit, we’re a fast, effective team of the best and brightest makers around.

When we build projects that aren’t profitable (competitions, Burning Man, public art), we love to train volunteers. Some are repeat volunteers who have helped us on a lot of past projects. Eventually, many of these volunteers reach the same skill level as those who help me in day to day work with my company, and then we can start sending jobs sent their way.

What opportunities are available with your team?

We work out of two shared shops: Boxshop in Hunter’s Point (San Francisco) and the Department of Spontaneous Combustion in American Steel (Oakland). Additionally, I teach metal shop and welding classes at Techshop in San Francisco. When we are working on public art projects, we LOVE help. Right now, we need help with electronics work, some finishing work and a bit of metal fabrication.

We spend a lot of time trying to get details looking pretty instead of making bigger and bigger art pieces. Therefore, volunteers can expect to learn a good deal about finishing, wire harnessing, and designing for robustness. If you’re interested in helping out, shoot me an e-mail –

Additionally, there are a few for-pay projects on the horizon. I have an e-mail list where I send out monthly updates that includes relevant art grants and projects I need help with (for pay or for free). Let me know if you’d like to get on this list!

How can supporters help you?

Land us a commission! We are an installation art company, and we pay rent through commissions.  Commissions also allow me to bring more workers into the fold. Small, custom projects are our forte (Precision welding, stainless steel work, interactive installations, etc.)

What’s your ultimate goal with Sheet Metal Alchemist?

My goal is to have an organic, sustainable company. I want customers to expect a fair price for a piece of custom artwork that is made by highly talented and motivated local artists. I want people who work for Sheet Metal Alchemist to be paid appropriately for their skill sets. I want to introduce novices into the world of machining, electronics, metalworking, and fire effects, immersing them in things that they love. I think all of this is possible, and I’m thrilled to be trying it out.

The original article can be found here