It’s the kind of setup one would find in Frankenstein’s Castle.
A Tesla coil over 7 feet tall sits inside the soundproof workshop of Dave Archer, unbeknownst to the neighbors next-door. Switched on, the machinery emits a loud buzzing noise. Archer’s dog Scruffy begins to shake in fear. He’s unable to comprehend the spectacle taking place before him.
Using a long metal rod known as a “lighting brush,” Brent Durand manipulates the blue strands of electricity generated from the coil. Working under the watchful eye of his mentor, he directs over two million volts into the paint smeared glass panel.
What may appear to be some sort of amateur science experiment is in fact an artistic process that Archer has developed over the past 40 years. The zaps energize the pigments and causes them to form in the shape and appearance of interstellar dust clouds and far away galaxies. After it dries, stars, planets, comets and other celestial bodies are painted on by hand. When light shines through the image it appears to glow. It’s as if it were a photo taken straight from the Hubble Telescope itself. Archer describes it as if “looking into a jewelry box that God flung across the universe.”
Archer’s work has appeared in National Geographic and was used to decorate the Starship Enterprise on the TV show “Star Trek: The Next Generation” for three seasons and two Star Trek movies. Archer, 77, works tirelessly to pass on his craft to the next generation.
The California native knew he wanted to be an artist ever since competing in a high school art competition at the age of 14. But it wasn’t until the ‘70s that Archer discovered his true passion: glass painting. It was his friend Ron Russell who introduced and encouraged him to pursue painting on glass. While skeptical at first, he quickly fell in love with it.
The duo’s mutual friend, Lee Byrd, had been experimenting for years with electricity and built his own Tesla coil. Eventually it occurred to Archer and Russell to combine Byrd’s electrical experiments with their glass paintings. After much trial and error, the trio were able develop a art process quite similar to what is used to this day. But back then they were only working with 50,000 volts. Today Archer can generate over 40 times that.
In 1999, Archer moved to Roseburg from California to look after his mother. After she passed away two years later, he decided to live out his dream of living in the country and stay.
“It was a culture shock,” Archer said, “but I got over it.”
Archer and Durand, master and apprentice, first met in 2009 at a video rental store. Durand was only 17 at the time, but Archer offered to take the Roseburg native on as a student once he turned 18. Durand believes the reason the pair get along so well is because of how his teacher sees himself in him.
“I’m kind of an oddball misfit, so in a way I think I remind him a lot of himself when he was younger, Durand said. “When he was awkward and didn’t really know what he was doing.”
Starting out, Durand, wasn’t allowed to use any of the equipment. Instead, his teacher instructed him to draw in a sketchbook. It was these childlike doodles that inspired Archer to nickname his student “Kidboy.”
Over the past seven years, Archer has shown him the ropes and inner workings of electrical painting. Durand is now able to proficiently operate the Tesla coil and Lightning Brush to create his own interstellar artwork in under two week’s time.
“Now I’ve gotten into something a lot bigger than just doodling on paper,” Durand said.
The duo work three days a week on their art. Durand remains a mostly silent accomplice as Archer does most of the talking. The teacher describes the two as the “Penn and Teller of glass painting.”
Durand said his mentor repeats himself a lot, but every now and then tells a story that’s new to him. Some of them are from Archer’s time as a doorman in the ‘60s at a San Francisco area cafe called Coffee and Confusion. It was there that he met and befriended entertainers like musician Janis Joplin, folk singer Hoyt Axton and comedian Steve Martin, who were just starting out their careers. Archer contributed several stories and details on the coffee shop to Martin’s 2007 autobiography “Born Standing Up.”
“Hearing him and all his stories kind of helps inspires me,” Durand said. He explained that his teacher has shown him that “you don’t always have to do what you’re being told to do, you can strive to get out there and do what you actually want to do.”
In his old age, Archer’s health isn’t what it used to be. Years of smoking and and getting zapped has left him with less energy than in his youth, and he gets tired more easily. Over the years Archer has been shocked numerous times, but Durand so far has been lucky enough to have avoided such injuries.
“He has yet to taste the cobra,” Archer said. “It’s gonna hurt like hell, but it probably won’t kill you.”
Upon his death, he plans to leave all of his tools and equipment to his protege. While Durand wants to carry on his teacher’s work, he isn’t sure where he’ll store all of the equipment from the workshop or how he’ll be able to fully support himself off of the craft. In any case, the two plan to continue capturing the beauty of the cosmos in an electrifying way until the day comes that they can’t anymore.
“This is my last dance,” Archer said. His dream is to create enough paintings “to have a good show, a real good show. And then maybe that’ll be it. Maybe we’ll have a giant show, the two of us, and then I’ll kiss it goodbye.”