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Indiana artist's work rings a bell for clients

| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 10:28 a.m.

INDIANA -- John McCombie earned a degree in art, but Mother Nature taught him his most important lessons when it comes to his own artwork.

The Great Outdoors is a theme often depicted in his pieces, and McCombie, owner of Crooked Creek Gallery north of Indiana, credits his Western Pennsylvania upbringing and a childhood spent hunting and hiking.

"Being in the country, just a personal love for nature, I guess I found animals--particularly birds--fascinating," McCombie said.

He was an owner of swans for 25 years, and often found inspiration in them for both paintings and sculptures.

"They mate for life," he said. "They set an example for all of mankind.

"There are a lot of things about nature that give us a clue on how to live. So I've kind of fancied that."

He dabbles in oil and pastel painting, but he pours most of his passion into his sculpture work, including the bronze bells that have become his trademark.

Locally, McCombie's work can be seen at Walnut Hill Winery in Blairsville, where his paintings and a few bronze bells are displayed. Visitors to the new winery's open house Saturday will have the opportunity to view some of McCombie's pieces.

Samantha Crissman, co-owner of Walnut Hill Winery is a family friend of the McCombies' and has always admired his work as well as the underlying themes behind his art.

"He's very talented, very gifted," she said. "He's very artistic and he's very real. The way he makes those bells, there's a story behind every one of them from his life."

McCombie grew up in Spangler and became captivated by art in his early school days. Immersing himself in the few classes he took, he went on to major in art at Kent State University in Ohio.

His initial college years were cut short by the draft, and he went off for a year to fight the war in Vietnam.

He took a job as a welder at a coal-fired power plant near his home, but he left to complete his studies--at Kent State and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

He took on a job as an art teacher, but ended up purchasing a farm in Indiana County and establishing his own welding and pipe-lining business, All American.

When he unearthed his passion for bronze-work, McCombie built his own foundry on his farm. That fed his desire to explore his sculpting craft.

He used his own foundry for more than 12 years before the hard work and time spent spurred him to start sending his pieces out to be cast.

"I've been rather spoiled in the sense that after I built my own foundry, I could cast whatever I wanted," he said.

Now retired, McCombie said he does most of his work in the winter months, preferring to spend his summer enjoying his others hobbies, which include golfing.

A welder by trade, McCombie had also developed an appreciation for the cowboy life. A few of his friends have even christened him with the nickname "Cowboy."

"We lived in Texas, and I always fancied that lifestyle," he said, noting that he raised horses for more than 20 years. "I always felt cowboys worked hard and played hard.

"A lot of my work has come from a cowboy's slow-moving dreams."

A member of the American Bell Association, as well as the Indiana Art Association, McCombie has received commissions for several pieces, including a large eagle for the Oakridge School in Texas and the American Indian figure found at IUP's Memorial Field House, dubbed "Spirit of the Warrior." Both he and his wife, Barbara, are graduates of IUP.

He was also hired by PennDOT to create three life-sized figures that stand next to the Harvey Taylor Bridge in Harrisburg.

"For any artist to have been awarded a commission in the state capital, that's a pretty big feather in the cap," he noted.

Although painting with oils and pastels is something he's always enjoyed, sculpture accounts for the majority of his artwork.

"It's whatever I get excited about at the time," he said.

For his sculpting work, McCombie said he uses what he feels is the best method--silicone bronze with a ceramic shell process.

His bells resulted from a desire to do something new.

"I saw some bronze and decided I would do it," he said.

His bells are first modeled in clay or wax, then a mold is made of the design. He extracts waxes from the mold and invests them in a ceramic shell. The wax is then burned out in a kiln that he designed and made himself.

Next, liquid bronze is poured into the ceramic shell mold and cooled.

Once the mold is removed, the real handiwork begins. McCombie must use sand-blasting and chasing techniques to regain the detail of the sculpture.

Chasing, he explained, is the use of air grinders and other tools to remove bronze that has seeped into places where it shouldn't be. These imperfections are a result of the casting process.

The final steps are to apply a patina, using acids and a hot torch, and a final wax.

His interest in creating and casting bells came after he attended several art shows with hopes of selling some of his work. He had some success, but the high-priced market for paintings and bronze sculptures kept many potential customers at bay.

McCombie's wife, Barbara, suggested he find something smaller that would still satisfy his artistic mind, yet be a little easier on the customers' pocketbooks.

For Christmas one year, McCombie made Barbara a small sculpted bell. A friend, the late Bill Moorehead, had pin-pointed it as having potential.

Moorehead recommended he attend the American Bell Association's National Bell Convention that was held that year in Rochester, N.Y. In the more than 20 years since then, McCombie has attended each national event.

That first time, he received orders for several of his bells, and began to develop a small following of bell collectors who admire his work.

He now has more than 20 bronze bells in his collection, scattered all over the world. Each year, he makes at least one new design, each in a small edition of about 75 to 100 pieces.

"When you have a bell, it tantalizes your other senses other than your eyes," he noted. " You can hold it, feel the weight of it, and it has a sound. It became fun for me to play around with them."

The conventions have sent McCombie and his family, including his three now-grown children, Johnny, Carey and Kelly, all over the United States.

On three different occasions, he was commissioned by the American Bell Association to design the convention bell. About 300 are made and sold to collectors at the event.

One of the signature aspects of his bells is the clapper, which he designs to complement the main sculpture of the bell.

In one of his newer designs, honoring the 101st Airborne, the clapper resembles a pair of military boots. This year's other new release, a sleek horse design, features a hoof-like clapper.

A local troop has used his Boy Scout bell design as an award given to a distinguished citizen who has aided the Boy Scouts. Inside that design, the clapper is a square knot.

"I feel very blessed and humbled that I have the ability to do this," McCombie said.

McCombie will head off to Denver, Col. for this year's National Bell Convention, where he will introduce two new designs--a majestic eagle honoring the 101st Airborne, and the horse.

He will also be at Walnut Hill Winery Saturday for its open house, from 1 to 6 p.m. The event will feature appetizers, wine tasting and live entertainment. The winery is located at 638 Turner Dr., Blairsville.

"All his art has meaning," Crissman remarked. "All his art reflects something in his life, and that's why I've always admired him. He does his art from the heart."

For more on McCombie's work, visit .

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