Vega Metals founder dies
Francis Javier Vega – who built metal gates, sculptures and other works in Durham and throughout the Triangle – has died after a long illness. Vega, 54, died April 19 of cancer.
Vega and his friend and business partner Neal Carlton established Vega Metals in 1985. Pieces that Vega and other artists from his studio designed include the iris fountain in Duke Gardens, one of the gates to the George Watts Hill Pavilion and foundry, and bronze railings in the N.C. General Assembly Building in Raleigh. Recently, Vega Metals completed work for a new aquatic center in Raleigh.
Carlton said he and Vega’s wife, Cindy, will continue creating metalwork at Vega Metals.
Vega was born in Cuba, but his parents came to the United States after the revolution. “We were high school buddies,” Carlton said. They grew up in Wallace, N.C., and both learned welding and did construction work. Vega “really had a drive to start his own business,” and Vega Metals was born.
“Brighter Leaves,” Preservation Durham’s book about Durham’s arts history, states that Vega and Carlton “had a major impact on the Durham arts community in design and cooperative work with other artists through their business Vega Metals.” Part of Vega’s legacy “is all of the metal workers who have worked in this shop and rented space from us have gone on to do their own thing,” Carlton said. Sculptors who worked or had connections with Vega Metals include Michael Waller of Liberty Arts, Andrew Preiss, and Ben Galata of Raleigh, Carlton said.
Vega Metals also was an early pioneer in revitalizing the Durham Central Park district. When he and Vega moved into the building on Hunt Street, “most of our tools got stolen the first night we got there,” Carlton said. “It wasn’t quite the same back then,” he said.
Ann Alexander, executive director of Durham Central Park, said Vega was in the Durham Central Park area before organizers got the idea for remaking the area into a public space. In addition to the George Watts Hill Pavilion, Vega has several pieces that are part of the park, including a memorial bench on the hill on the west side of the park, Alexander said.
Vega Metals also had a direct connection to the creation of George Watts Hill Pavilion. The late architect Frank DePasquale studied metal work with Vega. Vega and DePasquale would often talk about building a metal casting facility in Durham Central Park, Carlton said. DePasquale knew Hill, longtime chairman of Central Carolina Bank, which paid for the construction of the foundry, which DePasquale designed.
When the pavilion was being built, Waller was an art student from East Carolina University who was working with Vega Metals. Carlton said he and Waller built one of the gates on the pavilion. Waller later would become the facilities manager of Liberty Arts, the nonprofit metal sculpture organization that still uses the pavilion for public pours.
“He had such a passion about metal work,” Carlton said of Vega. “If you wanted to learn something unique [in metal work], you would try to come to this shop and pick our brain, or work for us. … Francis love people, and he loved to share what he had learned.”
His wife “is reeling from this,” Carlton said. A memorial may be announced later, he said. “We’ve certainly had a lot of people reaching out to us with condolences,” Carlton said. “A lot of people thought the world of Francis.”