Oregon Art Beat

Love leads to monumental artworks for Vancouver, Washington, metal sculptors

By Lisa Suinn Kallem (OPB)
June 3, 2023 1 p.m.

Husband-and-wife Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei worked in the high-tech world of Hewlett Packard. A simple smile brought the two together. But it was their love for complex design that drew them out of the office and into the world of public art. Corio and Frei, of Cobalt Designworks, took a trip down memory lane with “Oregon Art Beat.”


Jennifer Corio: Our mission with our artwork is to lift spirits and brighten the world.

Dave Frei: I’m Dave Frei.

Corio: And I’m Jennifer Corio and we make up the artists team for Cobalt Designworks.

The world right now is heavy. I feel the heaviness and I think that’s why I’m always striving to design with a lightness.

Frei: Creating a piece of public art, you’re putting out something that’s visual and creates a conversation. It becomes part of the community. And I think people tend to have pride in it, even if it’s a little controversial, it becomes something they can talk about and share with people visiting the community and it becomes important to them.

Metal sculpture entitled "Golden Connection" in Ashland, Oregon, created by Cobalt Designworks, 2022.

Metal sculpture "Golden Connection" in Ashland, Oregon, created by Cobalt Designworks

Cobalt Designworks / OPB "Golden Connections" by Cobalt Designworks

Corio: The piece in Ashland was all about a work of art that speaks to the transformation that the railroad made. They have a whole railroad district that was created in the late 1800s when the railroad came through. And Ashland was a very important part because it was a final connection between Portland and San Francisco when they finished the rail. It marked the complete circumference of the railroad around the nation. So it was a golden spike moment.

The golden spike became a canvas for some words. Then as I dived into the history, I saw just how pivotal the Chinese were in coming over and building the railroad. And it says in English, ‘In honor of the Chinese men who laid these tracks despite discrimination and without recognition, today we offer our belated gratitude in sadness’.

We met almost 24 years ago now. We were both working at Hewlett Packard at the time and Dave was doing R&D mechanical engineering work and I was in the marketing department. A friend of mine knew him and I thought he had smiling eyes. Um, I thought he was really handsome. He lived out in Battle Ground and he had a shop that he built, that was at least five times —

Frei: — three times.

Corio: Three times bigger than his house. We have all these different cars in there. I thought it was cool but I let him do his thing. I had been working in marketing for about five years. I was doing a lot of project management and more process-oriented stuff and taking these art classes at Clark College. I started exercising my creativity. And so these art classes, I was having a blast!

Frei: And she was coming home from her classes and sharing. I got to use a plasma cutter today. You know what those, yeah, I have one and he said we learned how to TIG [weld] and I go, oh, I have a couple of those. She started realizing she married into a dowry of a fabricator.

Corio: Dave and I started coming together, we would work in the garage and just do it as a hobby.


Frei: Jennifer had had some successes with the sculptures and all of a sudden HP had a downsizing and I qualified for early retirement. We took the leap and started Cobalt design works.

Corio: I work in my design studio. I’m the one who is looking for the art opportunities. Once we have secured a commission, the first part for me is the most exhilarating and the most daunting part. It’s playing detective on trying to talk to as many people as I can about what they want this art to represent. Then I’ll also start collecting images. I might take out some of my son’s books, books that I read to him as a kid, right? They’re just a source of so much fun inspiration like this one color. I mean, the stories are fun but just the pictures.

Hand-shaped metal sculpture elements, Cobalt Designworks, Vancouver, Washington

Hand-shaped metal sculpture elements, Cobalt Designworks, Vancouver, Washington

Cobalt Designworks / OPB

Frei: A lot of the work requires hand forming, hand shaping; a new area for me, but it’s been really enjoyable and learning how to shape metal and get the shapes we want to. A lot of people think of metal as quite rigid, but it really is very much like pizza dough. So when you press it out and stretching in certain areas, shrinking in other areas, you end up creating bowl shapes and waves and shapes like that. So the material will take a shape just like bread dough or something soft like that.

Because all our pieces are one-off, everything has to be assembled. The fabrication process takes hundreds of hours. So it’s a matter of breaking it down in different pieces and stepping through and trying to create one step at a time.

Image used in article for Oregon Art Beat, S24, EP7 story on Cobalt Designworks story produced by Lisa Kallem.

Metal sculpture "Tulip Dance" in progress in Cobalt Designworks studio, Vancouver, Washington.

Cobalt Designworks

Corio: I will say we’ve worked with some delicious colors. We work with powder coat mostly. Sometimes we do automotive paint but mostly powder coat because it’s much more environmentally friendly. They electrically charge the sculpture and then they spray the powder and the electrical charge is what attracts the powder to the piece. And after it’s been coated, it will go into an oven and it gets baked on.

Frei: Anything over six feet has to go through an engineering process and has to have a structural engineer look at it.

Corio: Dave and the engineers are always bringing me back down to earth. They’re reminding me that gravity is a thing, you know, and uh and sometimes, you know, they’re like, you gotta thicken this up and I’m like, oh that takes away the sexy look. But we, there’s a back and forth and it ends up being both graceful and structurally sound.

Sculptor Dave Frei and the Blackburn family with "Tulip Dance" in Mt. Vernon, Washington

Sculptor Dave Frei and the Blackburn family with "Tulip Dance" in Mt. Vernon, Washington

Cobalt Designworks / OPB

Frei: We’re finishing up a collaborative project with the Vancouver School of the Arts. It’s their design, but we are doing the actual fabrication.

Corio: The visionaries behind this project really want the students to learn; how do you work with the client to get to come up with your concept?

Frei: How do you find funding, apply for grants?

Corio: And they’re just getting to see the whole process. And I think this will really help launch them if they do want to go into public art themselves.

Screen capture of Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei in their studio, Cobalt Designworks, Vancouver, Washington, 2022

Screen capture of Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei in their studio, Cobalt Designworks, Vancouver, Washington, 2022

Darren Higgins / OPB

Frei: We each have our role in this process and it’s the coming together that really builds both our business and our relationship. I’m convinced our relationship has gotten stronger and stronger because of what we’re doing here.

Corio: I love a sense of lightness and a sense of brightness. And if I can lift somebody’s mood through our art that brings me a lot of joy. And so it’s meaningful to know that these things will last for a long time, decades to come and they’ll be out there, hopefully making a lot of people smile.


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