Indispensable: Steve Ferrera

“Indispensable” is a series that asks the de Young’s Artists in Residence to describe a tool that’s essential to their work.


Steve Ferrera was desperate, so he went to the Alameda Flea Market and bought a bag of used dental tools.


There might be creepier reasons for a trip like that, but Ferrera was looking for an implement he uses in his work as a sculptor. With a sharp point on one end and a gently cupped spatula on the other, designed for delicate scraping and prodding, this dental tool is also perfect for fine work in clay.


Ferrera’s project in the Kimball Gallery “To Touch the Sun,” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the multimedia production of a children’s book. His characters are perched around the Kimball Gallery—a little dome of fur stands at attention with a staff fashioned from a porcupine quill, and a bug sprawls lazily in a chair. All the expressiveness of these creatures, their unique presence, is a result of the marks made with this tool.



“Every sculptor collects a set of tools, has a bag of them, but there’s always one or two that can make the right marks. For me, between this tool and my thumb or fingers, I can pretty much make ninety percent of the marks I need.”


The Zen state of forgetting himself in his work is also a benefit for Ferrera. “If I’m using this, I’m usually at a stage where I’m totally enjoying the work, where there’s no worry. What I really enjoy is the sculpting process. When I’m using the tool, it’s just pure sculpting.”



In the end, a well-made tool—whether for cleaning teeth or smashing atoms—has a certain grace. “I’m a huge fan of craftsmanship, and I always think of the engineer who made this tool back in the day who was like, ‘Well, if we put this end on here, but rotate this end 90 degrees, that’ll be perfect.’ The engineer was on point when he made this.”


He’s also learned to be a little more careful with a tool that can be hard to find. “Just a little bend and suddenly it doesn’t make the same marks. I appreciate my tools more now than when I was younger. I know it’s a special tool because I’m starting to covet it.”


Which takes us back to his trip to Alameda. “I’d lost one, and I ended up fabricating a replacement from metal. But then I found out that I could buy every kind of dental tool at flea markets.” Sometimes the source is a little closer to home: “I also ask my dentist for all his old tools.”


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