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Petaluma artist creates mosaics with used ammunition shell casings

High atop a mountain overlooking Reno, artist John Ton was struck by something in the landscape around him - countless ammunition casings, littering the popular hiking and wilderness area.

“It was annoying, like seeing cigarette butts,” said Ton, 59. “I had been a mural artist so it amazed me I didn’t at first see this as a vision.”

He initially thought about possibly recycling the casings. After much consideration, Ton realized he could incorporate them into unique works of art, something he now calls “ammosaics.”

A few months after making his birthday hike to the 8,269-foot Peavine Peak in the Sierra Nevada, Ton began to see the littered casings as something more than garbage left behind by hunters, target shooters or marksmen testing their guns.

“With this it definitely was a process,” he said. “It spoke to me.”

The metallic casings, in various sizes and colors, could be repurposed into art, their hues providing Ton with a full-scale value. Brass, lead, copper and steel, some bleached by years in the sun, produce patinas of red, gold, silver, gray, light blue, lavender and nearly white.

By using the end without the head and rim, the casing interior is black - a realization that came to Ton at 3 one morning, after over-thinking ways to add darker tones to his palette.

“To think of that, it’s so obvious,” he said.

The longtime artist was experimenting in a new medium, though, something without instruction or direction. He’s only found a few others working with ammunition casings, but none producing art like his.

“Each one is an experiment. I just try different things,” he said. “All of these works are a conscious experiment to see what limits and what possibilities there are.”

It’s been more than a decade since Ton happened upon the endless supply of casings in the mountains. He’s since moved from Reno to Petaluma, where he’s known for the artistic signs he creates as owner of Petaluma Sign Co.

Ton also travels the state painting murals, including a retaining wall seascape in Capitola and a two-story, 90-foot-wide, old-time makeover of the Williams Hotel in Williams. He’s scheduled to begin a 32-foot by 35-foot mural of Booker T. Washington at a community services center in San Francisco.

While each medium expresses his broad talents, working in ammosaics is especially challenging.

Ton uses firearms casings ranging from .22 to .50 caliber, creating mosaic images on large plywood bases, gluing hundreds - even thousands - of the shells to create everything from a 36-inch by 48-inch landscape of a cowboy on horseback titled “Buckaroo,” to “Bamboo,” a shimmering ?48-inch by 24-inch piece featuring the evergreen plants.

The latest of his 12 works, titled “Terpsichore,” features the Greek goddess of dance and chorus, one of the nine muses. Her face, arms and lyre are painted, while the rest of the 37-inch by 60-inch piece in gold, silver and black casings is so detailed her long, flowing gown appears three-dimensional.

Terpsichore is playing her lyre, her face in peaceful contemplation.

“I almost feel like I can hear it,” Ton said. “I feel like she’s playing soft, loving, feminine music, even maternal, a lullaby.”

After much experimentation in the medium, Ton considers “Terpsichore” his biggest accomplishment. “I finally hit my stride,” he said.

Even at a selling price of $7,500 - give or take - Ton admits he’d have a tough time parting with the work. “You’d have to twist my arm to sell that.”

The piece is a contradiction in feminine and masculine values, the “ejaculation” of the ammunition blended with the beauty of the muse.

“She’s completely at peace with all of that,” Ton said. “The whole thing is about irony. It’s my most successful one so far.”

Ton glues each casing in place (about 5,000 for “Terpsichore”), using a construction-grade adhesive that gives him about “a half hour of forgiveness” to change a piece’s position. He doesn’t calculate the time he spends on each piece, but estimates “Terpsichore” took 200 hours to create.

Just getting the casings is work enough. He collects the materials and then painstakingly sorts them. Most come from public shooting ranges, where he heads out after closing time wearing a headlamp and kneepads, armed with a garden cultivator and five5-gallon buckets he fills with casings.

“If you want to get a girl, you go where the girls are. If you want to get casings, you go to a rifle range,” he quipped.

Cow Mountain Shooting Range in Ukiah is a favorite destination, rich with a variety of the metallic and plastic casings used for his art. At home, he spends several hours sorting each bucket for casings.

“Each one of these represents a gunshot, which is a mind-blower,” said Ton, who is “on the fence” about gun control issues. “The fact is, there are so many gunshots going off.”

He hopes to collect enough shells to one day create an ammosaic mural of grand scale, something he hopes will generate wonder and awe.

“It will be epic,” Ton said. “I’m pretty passionate about it.”

Every step in his creative process leads toward a showcase ammosaic. Even his first effort, a bighorn sheep he considered so terrible he tossed it away at a county dump, is a step in the right direction.

Trial and error and graphic and textural experimentation are simply part of the learning curve.

“Art,” Ton said, “is the fruit of the human endeavor.”

For more information, visit ammosaic.gallery or petalumasign.com or call 707-322-0009.

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