The Copper Canvas of Kandy Otto

The three-dimensional paintings in oil hanging on the wall at Get Real Cafe in Sturgeon Bay catch the eye. They’re created on thin copper sheets that have been pressed into shapes such as flowers, trees, landscapes and seascapes.

“It’s simply pressing in the pattern and then pushing out the areas three-dimensionally using different tools,” said their creator, artist Kinella (Kandy) Otto. “I use everything under the sun to press it out into three dimensions. You can even press holes if you go far enough.”

And then comes what she describes as the fun part: applying the patina that produces random results in the way it interacts with the copper.

“I never know how it’s going to go,” she said.

That’s because even a pure metal has residual alloys that respond differently depending on the levels, explained her husband, Steve Otto. (And he should know: He’s an engineer and the corporate procurement manager focused on virgin metals for MetalTek International in Waukesha. The company manufactures high-alloy specialty products for industrial uses.)

And if Kandy doesn’t like the outcome, she can remove the patina with a natural pine paint remover.

Kandy Otto.

Her work with copper began with a tooling class when she was a kid, and she’s taught the process through the years as an art teacher. 

Shortly after moving four years ago from Waukesha to a spot just south of Carlsville, for example, Otto offered to teach a copper-tooling class at The Clearing for people with no artistic experience. She provided three-inch-by-five-inch pieces of copper with a simple flower pattern that the students could copy into the metal.

“But it comes out differently for each person because they differed in the way they pressed into the copper,” she said. “They had so much pride in the result. I provided inexpensive frames so they could take home a finished piece.”

Those classes; the move to Door County, with its many artists; and then COVID-19 all had a big impact on her life.

“I had always thought of myself as an art teacher, not an artist,” Otto said. “I loved trying to make so many different types of work that I never settled down to something that grabbed my attention. Now in Door County, with all the artists and the beautiful county, you can’t help but get excited. Then COVID hit, and that was my therapy.”

She started painting on copper and then sculpting it as well.

“I saw artists on YouTube using all kinds of tools, so I started experimenting with a Dremel and other etching tools,” she said.

Otto likes to use both medium- and fast-drying oils so she can control the paint. A portrait teacher at Peninsula School of Art suggested using more expensive paints because they have better pigments, and that allows her to spread the paints thinner.

“Trees of the Field Will Clap their Hands” by Kandy Otto, oil on copper repoussé.

“I love sculpting the metal and painting on it, and I don’t see anybody else doing that,” she said. “I took two paintings to Janine Buechner for framing at Blue Moon Framery, and she said she had never seen anything like it and encouraged me to pursue this more.”

After Otto purchased two paintings from Woodwalk Gallery, then-owners Jillaine Burton and Andy Seefeldt drove over to deliver and hang the works. Otto brought out her copper paintings, and Burton agreed to take them on at the gallery – another step in making Otto feel like an artist.

She also showed a copper painting to Veronica Ripp and Judy Sinitz at Get Real Cafe in Sturgeon Bay with similar results. They invited her to hang copper paintings in the main dining room and pastels in the meeting rooms and coffee lounge below. 

Otto’s pastels are experiments, too, starting with a special ink and squirting it with water, “which changes the painting in a crazy way. Then while it is damp, I do an underpainting and then apply pastel grit over that, let it dry and do pastel on top. The element of surprise makes it more exciting.”

She has tried portraits on copper, but the resistance of the material makes it hard to create a good likeness.

“The thicker the copper, the more you can get control, but it’s harder for these old hands,” she said.

Otto hasn’t given up on portraits, but for now, she’s doing landscapes, trees and forests, and flowers.

“This coming year I plan to do more work on people,” she said.

Otto likes to visit Door County Land Trust properties to take photographs that she then uses as a basis for paintings.

She’s also experimenting with different types of paint and different ways of applying the paint. A wall in her studio is filled with small pieces of copper and various types of paint, with notes specifying the paint and the process.

“I try to maintain a kind of transparency and let that copper show through,” Otto said. “With the copper, I already have the orange and the glow. But not all colors work over orange. Some are really ugly. So it’s been quite a learning curve because paints over copper do different things that they don’t do on a white or colored canvas. 

“I’m experimenting with much better-quality paints, so I need less paint, and the colors are so much more vibrant. I’m working to have contrast with built-up areas and then transparent areas showing the copper itself.”

Steve, who spends the early part of the week working in Waukesha and the rest working from home, pushes her to keep at her painting.

“Kandy – inventory,” he tells her. “You have to paint every day.” He often joins her at the Miller Art Museum’s M3 painting sessions and accompanies her to Sturgeon Bay Art Crawl meetings, through which her work at Get Real Cafe will be shown.

“There are 20 or so artists around the table, and it’s not like a meeting of engineers,” Otto said. “He finds it delightful. Forty years ago, this was not my husband. He’s gotten to be really arty, too, and is doing projects for the M3. He just enjoys being around artists because they think so differently from engineers.”