Metal and Rust: Loudoun Sculptor Brian Kirk Finds Magic in the Unexpected

Sometimes the best art happens by accident.

Years ago, sculptor Brian Kirk left a piece of steel on a cardboard box for a few weeks and was fascinated by the pattern left by rust on the surface. Over the past decade, he’s been experimenting with creating rust prints on paper—and the unexpected (and sometimes other-worldly) images that result.

“Metal” a show of Kirk’s rust prints opens Wednesday, June 8, at Ashburn’s Old Ox Brewery.

“To me, rust was like the worst possible thing to deal with because I work with steel,” Kirk said. “I never envisioned when I left that first pattern that it was going to turn into this.”

After that initial discovery, Kirk started experimenting with scrap metal plates, finding and working with unusual shapes. Using thick, high quality watercolor paper—and lots of trial and error—Kirk began honing his rust print process. During his first attempts, he found that the metal often stuck to the paper, a problem he solved by coating the paper with a liquid soap solution. He also moved from spraying the materials with a hose to soaking them in a water bath, using a large inflatable kids’ pool for larger pieces.

“I’m not the first one to do it, that’s for sure. I’ve seen it other places, but no one ever says how to do it so I had to experiment a lot,” he said.

Sculptor Brian Kirk at his home near Purcellville. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Sculptor Brian Kirk at his home near Purcellville. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

Kirk uses what he calls a “sandwich” model to make the prints—leaving the metal plate between two pieces of paper. The top and bottom layer create very different results, with different levels of relief in the rust patterns.

“The bottom plates are usually a little more juicy,” Kirk said. “A little thicker, a little more rustic—no pun intended.”

And that “juicy” quality creates fascinating pieces that often surprise even the artist himself. In a series of “Moon” prints, Kirk used a circular plate, and the crusty and sometimes watery rust patterns create a lunar-like surface.

After starting with found shapes in scrap yards, Kirk began designing his own plates, which he has cut by laser. He often uses a metal plate for a print and then incorporates it into a metal sculpture. Before assembling his “Cryptos” sculpture (made up of a pattern of Xs and Os), Kirk used the O and X plates for rust prints—a perfect fit for the Old Ox show. His large metal “Hand” sculpture served as the basis for one of his larger scale rust prints.

Kirk grew up in Prince Georges County MD, then son of a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory. His father was also a naturalist and rock hound, and Kirk credits early expeditions with his dad for passion for natural forms and found objects. And Kirk’s interest in the sciences comes through in his exploration of the chemical processes involved in the rust prints.

“It’s always been a blend for me,” he said.

Kirk, who moved to Loudoun in the mid-1980s, graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and launched his career with art therapy and family services positions with the Department of Defense in Germany and Belgium.

When he and his family returned to the states from Europe, they settled in Loudoun. Kirk began working for the county’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs and doing weekly artist-in-residence programs with Loudoun County Public Schools. It was then that he discovered his love of teaching. “I found my calling,” he said.

Kirk was hired as a full-time art teacher with Loudoun County Public Schools and has been head of the art department at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn since its opening in 1999. Getting a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, he has taught classes for VCU and continues to teach welding at the Art League in Alexandria.

Rust print, by Brian Kirk
Rust print, by Brian Kirk

Kirk has also spent time in Mexico and Asia, taking part in art fellowships in Japan and China. These influences are in evidence in the art-filled garden at the home Kirk shares with his wife, painter Judy Carraway. A former barn on the lush western Loudoun property houses Kirk’s welding and printmaking studio. At 63, he is still passionate about the hot and often difficult work of welding and is also enthusiastic about a more recent foray into blacksmithing.

The next few weeks are jam-packed for the artist. As the school year comes to a close, Kirk is preparing for the opening of the “Metal” show, the sixth in the Loudoun Arts Council’s artWorks series, which pairs local artists with area breweries and wineries. Old Ox, located in an industrial park in Ashburn, has been the pilot site for the program. And LAC will be bringing new venues into the fold this year. The council will be opening online applications—from both artists and venues—at its website in the next few weeks, and has also developed a system to allow art lovers to instantly buy the art on display using their smart phones.

Kirk is also participating in the annual Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour June 18 and19, opening his studio (near Woodgrove High School outside of Purcellville) to the public. While the Old Ox show will focus on his rust prints, the studio tour is a chance to show off his sculptures in their natural environment and engage with art lovers and buyers. Two of Kirk’s metal sculptures were also selected for the Town of Leesburg’s Raflo Park Sculpture Garden and will be installed at the end of this month.

“Metal” runs June 8 through the end of August at Old Ox Brewery, 44652 Guilford Drive, Ashburn. A meet-the-artist reception is scheduled for Friday, July 1 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information about the show and the Loudoun Arts Council’s artWorks program, go to

Kirk’s studio will be open for the Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour, Saturday June 18 and Sunday, June 19, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Kirk’s metal sculptures “Unity” and “Sprout Man,” along with works by Michael Clay and Peter Wood, will be formally unveiled in the Town of Leesburg’s Raflo Park Sculpture Garden Saturday, July 2. The works will be on display for two years and will be available for sale after the exhibit. See more information here.

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