When he wanted to get the attention of his scuba class, Ed Kidera would bang on a full air tank that he used for instruction. His students would instantly redirect their eyes toward him, drawn back to reality by the beautiful tone emanating from the heavy steel cylinder.
The tank's special sound wasn't lost on Kidera, either, as he immediately recognized its potential as kinetic art. That moment of serendipity more than 20 years ago changed the direction of his life.
Kidera, who has a master's degree in ocean engineering and was a self-employed consultant at the time he was giving scuba lessons part time, began experimenting with making bells from various types of tanks shortly after his chance discovery.
Today, the Woodbine resident is a full-time metal sculptor whose one-of-a-kind bells of all sizes are scattered among the wooded 6 acres that surround the home he shares with his wife, Brenda, who is also a full-time artist and a private art instructor.
"I feel fortunate to be able to make a living doing this," he said.
Kidera is the only county artist who was selected to exhibit in the Howard County Arts Council's ARTsites 2012, a yearlong installation of public art at 12 outdoor locations throughout Howard.
Temple Bell, an 800-pound specimen and the largest bell Kidera has created, hangs in a landscaped area in front of the Lakeside Building on Wincopin Circle in Columbia, near Lake Kittamaqundi.
Yet he also crafts birdbaths, mailboxes and metal furniture, among other items, and doesn't want to be known as "the bell guy."
"I told myself in the beginning that I'd make 10,000 bells and quit," the 57-year-old Wisconsin native said, adding that he's pretty much on track to accomplish that goal. "I suffer a bit from labeling."
He has made 6,715 bells, which he initials and numbers, and those that don't reside in someone's home or garden are for sale in 65 art galleries around the country.
"It's hard to appreciate a bell unless you're standing next to it and can ring it, and I wanted more people to enjoy them than just the people who come here," he said of his home studio. He's glad that gallery owners showcase his work to a wider audience, he said.
Sandy Phelan, owner of the Stepping Stone, an arts and crafts gallery in Lewes, Del., said she has carried Kidera's bells, birdbaths, tables and bookends since she bought her gallery in 2004. She also has some of his wife's watercolors in her shop.
"I find his work to be extremely creative, and I like the fact that it's made of reclaimed materials that would normally be discarded," Phelan said. "It's whimsical and lovely, and extremely popular."
While his bells are as much percussion instruments as they are works of art, Kidera still fashions them from junk. He sees treasure gleaming behind the often-dull finishes and utilitarian shapes he collects. Who else would devote a corner of his workshop to racks that groan under the weight of dozens and dozens of oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers and gas cans?
There are also shelves of discarded trumpets, tubas and clarinets, as well as motorcycle mufflers, ships' tilt indicators and chrome from a 1957 Chevy.
He incorporates this stuff into his steampunk art, which involves creating futuristic innovations the way they might have been designed in the Victorian era, when steam power ruled. His
"I learned a long time ago that when you see something, you better grab it while you can," he said of his forays to junkyards, dumps or flea markets. Whatever junk he happens to stumble upon dictates the look of each piece, he noted.
Kidera began honing his metalworking skills at an early age, learning enough about welding from his father to be able to teach the basics when he was only 12. About the same age, he fixed up an old car and sold it.
"Making stuff is something that I've always done, and my art is just an extension of that," he said.
Temple Bell is made from a fire extinguisher; a fireman's Scott bottle, which is a type of breathing apparatus; and a clutch plate from a tractor, Kidera said. The top of the stand from which it hangs is made from a truck's leaf spring, which is commonly used in a vehicle's suspension.
"The sound of the bell is very deep and gentle," he wrote in a description of the bell on the arts council's website. "Your body feels it as much as your ears hear it."
Coleen West, executive director of the arts council, said Kidera's work is beautifully crafted.
"I really like the aesthetic sense of his work and that it's environmentally conscious," she said. "It's really strong work, and Ed is a real asset to Howard County."
Kidera's single entry was among 79 submissions of individual works, and each artist was allowed to enter three pieces, West said. The council's public art panel selected 36 pieces, then the owners attached to the installation sites provided input on their preferences. All works can be viewed through April 2013.
Kidera said he's happy his work can be enjoyed by many.