Plumber's Pipe Dream Becomes Artistic Career

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

In a garage off Oxnard Boulevard, Bernard Collin wields a blowtorch upon a thick slab of sheet steel, cobalt flame strobing the room, a rain of sparks falling everywhere.

"There," he says, looking up. "It's a little deer. All you do is cut through, and then maybe you put a man in the steel who chases the deer."

OK.

Across the street, Bernard's wife, Mary, minds the store. This is where Bernard's work ends up, in a cinder block showroom of the torched: Steel lamps. Steel tables. Steel room dividers. Eight-foot-tall free-standing pieces of rusted, cut, torched and beaten steel that, rendered weightless by the "movement" of primitive and abstracted motifs, are friendly monoliths.

Bernard's a Frenchman, a former pipe fitter from a village near Dijon. Mary's a Californian who grew up in Mill Valley and the San Fernando Valley and odd-jobbed in Venice Beach along the way.

They live in a trailer in Malibu. They fell in love when Mary, as a part-time college student in the '70s, backpacked her way around Europe and hired on to help raise 120 sheep at a bed-and- breakfast/farm owned by Bernard's family. The farming went well. The marriage did, too.

But in France it was hard to get ahead. Bernard saw himself fitting pipes forever, not that fitting pipes is bad work. But Bernard had noodled around with wood back home, carving abstract sculptures. He just didn't think much about it.

They came to California, took a place in Venice, and Bernard became the darling of apartment building owners who were mystified by a plumber who liked to fix old things rather than mindlessly replace them with the new. Bernard let his hourly rate do the American thing--triple with demand, topping out at $45.

But the tradesman ghost returned. Bernard figured: This is all I'll ever do.

He headed for the basement at night after work, torching and bending steel. The first pieces were decorative, with some utility: huge weather vanes, not unlike the custom pieces atop numerous Beverly Hills garages. Then some lamps. Then a table.

Mary would schlep the pieces to open construction sites in Santa Monica, Malibu--wherever they'd listen to her. She sold a few. The big break came, however, when the Brian Jeffreys store on Melrose in Los Angeles purchased two lamps for more than $500.

"That night," says Mary, "we cried. We saw it might be possible."

Things took off. Bernard torched and cut full-time in a rented space in Culver City. Mary drove, sold and went to the trade shows to pass out not glossy brochures but sometimes blurry Fotomat snapshots of her husband's work.

Cher would buy a Bernard Collin piece, so would others of the rich and famous who live in mansions that surround Paradise Cove, site of Mary and Bernard's trailer home. Bernard's pieces, originally heavy and rough-hewn, took on a leaner line. They would then show up in the upscale mail-order catalogues, such as Sundance and the Last Great Place, which currently lists Bernard's simple Latigo table lamp for $345.

Now Oxnard. This is not your basic art district kind of street. The shop states its business in block letters--FRENCH METAL ART--but is situated across from OK Radiator and Pettigrew Muffler & Brake. Rust, it would seem, binds the neighborhood.

This is fine with Mary and Bernard, who admit to having not a clue as to how well they'll do, even though Bernard and his assistants are cranking out 130 metal art pieces monthly.

"I'm not a businessman," he says.

"Really, we're just winging it," she says.

Then again, how well they do commercially may not be the point.

Bernard walks past a $550 sideboard into which he has cut a primitive hunting scene and then a $300 floor lamp whose flowing lines defy its perhaps 40 pounds of heft and then the copper-shaded Latigo lamp, which here sells for the outlet price of $200. He is wearied by discussions that would place him in large-scale, gotta-get-rich production.

Indeed, Bernard is most animated when discussing a not-for-sale, unfinished abstract sculpture that carries the raw, edgy energy of a Miro in 3-D.

The pipe fitter from France rubs his stubbled jaw.

"Artist?" he says. "Oh, I am, perhaps, an artisan. For me, my dream would be to make someday a very big gate, a gate with many designs in it."

Where the gate would lead is anybody's guess. But it would surely embody what's here, in a showroom in this industrial outback.

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