Published June 2, 2016
Frederick Sachs always wanted to learn how to weld.
A SUNY Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, Sachs grew up on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he learned how to milk cows, raise chickens and pigs, and master all of the normal experiences and responsibilities of life on a farm.
Watching his friends put pieces of their tractors back together using an acetylene torch really interested him.
“I thought it was pretty cool, and I wanted to learn how to do it,” Sachs says. “My dad appreciated the implements I made with a friend’s torch.
“A friend of mine had a business cutting road signs there in Putnam County,” he says. “He also did tractor repair. Both of those business involved welding, so I got him to teach me how to do it. And that was where it ended for a long time.”
Forty years, to be exact.
Sachs went on to earn his degrees, and after a few years teaching organic chemistry at Chaminade College, followed by a position as a staff fellow at the National Institutes of Health, he landed at UB in 1975 as an assistant professor in pharmacology.
In addition to being a SUNY Distinguished Professor in biophysics, Sachs also has taught chemical engineering. His research interests center around mechanical and electrical biophysics — from molecules to organs — and the development of scientific tools, such as the creation of a sensor chip to measure cell volume in real time.
Additionally, Sachs has led research that resulted in the identification of a peptide found in tarantula venom that suppresses mechanical senses in cells, a discovery that is in preclinical testing as a treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Through it all, his interest in welding remained.
“But it has changed,” Sachs says. “I knew that welding is like instant glue for steel, and tempts one to make sturdy fanciful objects. Larry Griffis’ sculpture park showed me what steel sculpture can be.
“Mark Griffis, Larry’s son, served as my teacher into how welded sculptures are created. I won two free lessons in steel sculpture at the Griffis family’s Essex Arts Center on Buffalo’s West Side. There, I learned about the bending, cutting and grinding, and welding, and some of the backache.”
The concept of welded steel sculpture as an art form is generally credited to the artistic collaboration between Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzalez and Pablo Picasso in the early 1930s. While its history is relatively short, welded steel sculpture has become established as a sculptural genre, and over the years many variations of welding have been adapted and perfected by artists for their needs.
For Sachs, steel sculpture represents a totally different mindset from doing research in his lab.
“I have been creating sculptures for about 10 years, and with steel, there is such a sense of permanence. There is the sense of touch and feel to the surfaces. Steel carries stability,” he says.
“But a lot of humor and lightness, a human side, can also be found in steel sculpture and I often go that route in what I do.
“It is possible to represent emotions, such as happiness, sadness, amusement and even something a bit more complex, such as disappointment. It doesn’t take much steel to do it, but it does take imagination and a bit of patience, which I enjoy.”
Sachs works out of a metal sculpture studio he set up in a house on the Lake Erie shoreline, just south of Evangola State Park. Prior to this, he worked in the unheated Essex street studio, which eventually gave way to spending time in the metal working shop in UB’s art department.
Sachs doesn’t sell his work, but he has given away a few pieces to friends.
“I have never sold anything I have created. Of course, I have never tried to, either,” he says.
“Right now it is just a very satisfying game. The return is so immediate compared to writing grants. That, really, is my reward, especially when the piece turns out the way I wanted it to.
“When you can walk away, and come back and look at it and like what you’ve done, that is all the applause I need.”