Oil drum sculptures are found throughout the Caribbean, but the art is truly Haitian. Hundreds of independent Haitian metal artists strive to make a sustainable living by exporting their pieces from a country where political strife and lack of tourism eliminated most sales outlets. Most learned the craft from their fathers, cousins, neighbors, and friends. They typically begin as laborers, then advance to apprentices. Experienced artisans often open their own workshops, employing a new generation of laborers and apprentices, to the overall betterment of the community.
Used oil drums are no longer readily available. They are imported into Haiti by container and sold to the artisans. Even though new, less expensive steel sheets could be used, artisans rely on used drums for the patina. Patinas range in color from gray/silver to brown/black. It is not uncommon to see multiple patinas on one sculpture. However, most consumers now prefer a solid steel color. So, artisans try to keep the color as uniform as possible.
How are the steel sculptures created?
Every sculpture is cut and hammered by hand. It takes several steps to complete the labor-intensive process:
- The artist first removes the top and bottom of a 55 gallon oil drum.
- The ends are placed inside the drum along with dried banana, sugar cane leaves, or straw. Cardboard is sometimes used.
- The drum is then set on fire to rid it of impurities.
- Once the barrel has cooled, the artisan must climb inside the drum and, using all his/her weight, open it.
- The ends and side (roughly 3 x 6 feet) are pounded into a flattened metal canvas.
- Designs are typically created on cardboard first, which are carefully traced with chalk onto the metal.
- Using a hammer and chisel, the shape is cut out of the metal.
- Various decorative patterns are then pounded into the metal using primitive tools. Texture is achieved by adding details to the front and back of the sculpture.
- Once the design is complete, each piece is sanded to bring out the shine and hues.
- The finished design is signed by the artist.
- Many of these works of art are left in their natural silver color. In that case, a coat of varnish is used to protect them from oxidation. Other sculptures are hand-painted in exquisite colors.
- The ends of the drum are often used to produce smaller round sculptures. These sculptures can take hours to make. Larger pieces created from the side of the barrel usually take days to complete.
The result is a unique and treasured piece of primitive art. Visit our selection of Haiti Oil Drum Art.
What is the history of oil drum art?
This particular art form was born in Haiti in the early 1950s by a simple blacksmith, Georges Liautaud. In his small shop, he made and repaired tools. He also created primitive metal crosses for the graves in the Croix-des-Bouquets cemetery. It was at the encouragement of an American teacher, DeWitt Peters, who opened the Le Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944, that Georges Liautaud began creating decorative metal sculptures. Eventually, a few talented men apprenticed under him. Today, metal art is made primarily by men, who begin the craft at a young age.
How do I maintain the look of the metal art?
These sculptures are great indoors or out. When displayed outdoors, the varnish will wear away over time, and the sculptures will begin to rust naturally. You can maintain the original look by spraying the sculpture with a clear enamel every couple of years. If rusting occurs, buff the affected area with steel wool and wipe clean before spraying with enamel.
Updated December 21, 2016