If you actually paid attention to the gorgeous details in "Planet of the Apes," you might have spied some beautiful lamps in the background. Those luminous props were made by Frank Egan, who bases his works on ancient Greek, Roman and North African designs. The Benicia artisan will be showing off his lamps this weekend at the American Craft Council's huge Craft Show at Fort Mason Center.
Frank Egan saw the new "Planet of the Apes" but admits he wasn't paying too much attention to the story. He was looking at the lamps.
"I thought they looked great," says Egan, the Benicia artisan who created the elegantly crafted bronze oil lamps that light the interior scenes of the sci-fi monkey flick.
Egan's work -- which "Apes" set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg found on the Internet -- is based on ancient Greek, Roman and North African clay lamps. He has spent the past decade studying their forms, function and history.
"These are functional interpretations of existing artifacts," says Egan, who will be displaying his lamps this weekend at the American Craft Council's huge Craft Show San Francisco at Fort Mason Center. It features the work of 350 artists from around the country -- jewelers, ceramicists, glassblowers and furniture makers, people who make purses from discarded highway signs and quilts from recycled paper.
Egan has created nine styles based on ancient lamps. They include the pear- shaped Tunisian Lamp; a fifth century "early Christian" form with a fish, triangles and circles carved in relief; the squat Frog Lamp with carnelian red eyes, based on a lamp made in Egypt from the second to fourth centuries; and an unadorned Greek-style lamp dating from the fourth century B.C.
Egan carves the forms from a block of wax, incises them with floral patterns, chevrons and other intricate decorations drawn from the originals, then casts them in bronze using the ancient process known as "lost wax."
He employs a specialist to apply the patinas that color the lamps, which have the look of stone. They come in three colors: verdigris, mahogany and an ocherlike tone he calls "antique Greek," based on the color of an ancient Greek medallion.
"I think these really serve as monuments to the works of the past," says Egan, 55, who speaks in deep, measured tones. He's been fascinated by ancient cultures and artifacts since he was an 8-year-old in Kansas City, spending his weekends among the antiquities at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. "I'm honoring the work and the workers."
Egan, who's divorced and has a 25-year-old son, is a self-taught scholar who combs archaeological journals and counts among his friends Donald Bailey, the curator of Greek and Roman lamps at the British Museum, who owns one of Egan's lamps.
They're larger than the originals, in part so they can hold more fuel (they burn as long as six hours). The ancients, Egan says, lived in agrarian societies and went to bed early, so they only needed a few hours of lamplight.
He has also updated some of the materials. His lamps use liquid paraffin, which gives off no smoke or smell, and a fiberglass wick, which, unlike cotton, doesn't burn. "Fiberglass is a great innovation," he says with a smile. But he casts bronze much the way it was done 4,000 years ago.
"I get great joy out of understanding and feeling what the ancients did," Egan says. "I'm constantly amazed at how little (the process) has changed. In terms of casting metal, they knew it all."
Lamps, he says, "tell us about man's craving for light. We can't function in the dark. In ancient cultures (fire) was used to keep away evil spirits. We find many hideous lamps designed to repel the creatures of the night. . . . I suppose you could say lamps are magic. There's been a certain magic quality to them throughout history. The story of Aladdin has survived for many, many centuries."
Egan, who skipped college but picked up a lot of skills as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Air Force, began casting metal in 1975, apprenticing for two years with Arkansas sculptor Hank Kaminsky. He spent the '80s working as an organic farmer in the Ozark Mountains before turning his attention to lamps.
He was initially attracted to the beauty of the ancient forms. Then he became intrigued by how and why they evolved. Among other things, he wanted to know why longer nozzles began appearing on North African lamps around 200 A.D.
"The heat tended to go back into the body of the old lamps, making them too hot to handle," says Egan, whose ancestral Gaelic name means fire. "As a design innovation, they lengthened this (nozzle) to dissipate the heat."
Egan's lamps have gotten a little hotter after appearing in "Planet of the Apes."
He hung up a poster from the film to draw crowds his way at a Seattle crafts fair two weeks ago, and he "had the best show ever," says Egan, whose pieces sell for $375 to $475.
Getting the movie gig was pure serendipity. One day last year, he casually mentioned to a friend that it would have been great to get one of his lamps in the film "Gladiator." The next day he got an e-mail from the "Apes" set designer, who had seen his Web site and wanted three lamps. After receiving them by FedEx, she commissioned 15 more with different patinas that fit the film's color scheme.
"It was just happenstance," says Egan, who swears he didn't get his wish from rubbing a lamp, "although clearly I do a lot of rubbing -- and sanding, grinding and polishing."
Egan flips a switch to light his studio-home, but he often sits by lamplight in the evening. "I like the interplay of light on the walls," he says. "It's primitive and timeless."
THE 26TH ANNUAL AMERICAN CRAFT COUNCIL CRAFT SHOW SAN FRANCISCO takes place 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Fort Mason Center's Herbst and Festival pavilions. Admission: $8, $14 for a two-day pass, free for children younger than 12. (415) 896-5060.