Making a Mark in Metal
Four artists share their stories
Many metal artists did not pursue metal as their original path. They more likely stumbled upon the art form while trying other mediums, yet for these four South Carolina metal artists, fascination with the unique craft has taken hold.
Daufuskie Island’s Chase Allen, the artist whose sheet metal fish, mermaids, crabs, stingrays, and other Coastal art has put him in the milestone “two-million dollar club,” frequently receives national media attention. He sells his work through his website as well as the honor system at the Iron Fish Art outdoor gallery on his property, where people pick out what they want and either leave money or their phone number so that he can call them to get their credit card information. Sometimes he forgets to call them, and people send checks with interest added. This at-times untended gallery allows him to work without interruption.
During his last semester at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Chase says he took a ceramics class as his final elective. “That’s when a light bulb went off. For the first time, that’s when my creative and artistic side started up.” However, Chase had already secured a job with a developer on Daufuskie Island, so he went to work. “I was conflicted because I knew I was not supposed to be in the traditional business world. I was a fish out of water.”
However, a few more developments had to happen before he began to create his own best-selling fish.
“I started plotting on what I was going to do next,” he says. “Daufuskie is a great place. It’s remote, and I thought I could start an artistic venture out here. But the only thing I knew how to do was pottery, and that seemed like a rude thing to do when there was already a pottery studio here. So I thought to myself, ‘I need to find another medium.’ I went on vacation in Asheville and saw a metal artist. I asked him how he put his pieces together, and he said that he welded them, so I knew that’s what I had to learn how to do.”
When Chase got back to Daufuskie, he started visiting the on-site mechanic shop and asked if there were any welders. There were, and they agreed to let him weld together scrap metal on his lunch breaks. “That is the whole origin,” he says. “Welding came naturally to me. The second I stuck two pieces of steel together, my brain started to formulate a plan for how I was going to do this for a living … how I was going to quit real estate.”
Then 2001 came. Two of his young friends passed away, his mother became ill, and then there was Sept. 11. After these events, Chase was fully aware that life is too short. He decided to go for it, maxing out a credit card for $10,000, which ended up being the same as a business loan since at the time credit card companies were not charging interest. This allowed him to buy all of his equipment interest free.
“I don’t recommend using a credit card to start a business if you aren’t disciplined,” says Chase. “A lot of people assume that since I was briefly in real estate I had money, but at that time, I was completely broke. All I had was good credit and an unused credit card. There were also a lot of rumors on Daufuskie. Tour guides often tell their clients that I got rich in the stock market and came out here to be an artist. I’ve also heard that I’m a trust fund child. I think these stories spring up because people have a really tough time imagining making a good living only from art. These rumors are mostly funny, but the true story is that my business was 100 percent built on a 0 percent interest credit card. I’m proud to say that I started small, and I never paid a nickel of interest on my credit cards as I repaid my debt. You don’t have to have a lot of money to get started if you start small.”
Chase’s plan was to make Iron Fish Art a destination gallery. He found a house for rent, put up a tent, and called that his workshop for making yard art. “It worked. I was making a very modest living, but it wasn’t amazingly successful.”
Then he combined another passion of his — fishing — with his art. If he hadn’t been an artist, he said he would have liked to be a marine biologist. Everything changed. He made a few fish sculptures and realized that he needed to have a Coastal emphasis and to make wall art. “I got a clear focus, and that is what differentiates me from many other artists. Creative people’s attention can get scattered. It’s important to focus if you want to be a professional artist,” he says. “I’m an artist. I wanted to make a million things — plants, trees, other things. But if I want to get known as a specialist in a certain area, then I must stay focused, and that has served me well.”
The focus also helped him power through the lean years of his start up. “The sacrifice was that even though I was having a good time and getting a lot of positive feedback, when you are watching your friends making money and having fun, you can’t help but question what you are doing. I’m getting rewarded now, but it took a while.”
Some misadventures happened along the way. When welding in the workshop tent one day, he suddenly realized that his pants were on fire from the sparks. After he got that out, he saw that the sparks had also lit the pine straw littered on the ground and the fire was burning towards an ancient live oak in the back yard. “I ran after the fire with a rake and raked like a mad man for 20 minutes,” he says. He saved the oak — and himself. “I’ve set myself on fire at least 20 times,” he adds. “I’ve gotten a lot smarter about things. It’s survival of the fittest.”
For Bob Doster, who owns Back Street Studio in Lancaster and whose large stainless steel sculptures are installed all over the state, the most challenging part of being an artist is balancing his projects. “The hardest part of my day is finding time to do my work,” he says. “Work gets in the way of work. I’ve got so many projects going on that we’re backed up. I work seven days a week, and the only time I don’t work is when I get out of town; half of the time that I get out of town, I’m working. The more I do, the more ideas I get. You have to be disciplined. I’ll be working on one project and get an idea for another one. But I have to finish the one I’m working on.”
Bob’s father let him play with a blow torch when he was 8 years old. When he was 11, he made some ducks and sold them to a bank for $5, which felt like a lot of money. “After that, I got the bug,” he says. Charles Duke, the astronaut from Lancaster who walked on the moon, was a neighbor. Bob remembers thinking that if Charles Duke could go to the moon, he could go anywhere with his art work.
Most of his works are monumental public sculptures. Many are located in the Midlands, built with the help of students through the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Visiting Artists Program. He is currently at work on a globe that will be installed at Lexington Middle School. Like other school projects, students get to help make the sculpture.
“You see the children’s faces light up when they work with a plasma cutter and cut out steel or work with a blow torch. It shows them a different way to make art that’s not just drawing on paper. They might not ever become a professional artist, but they might find out they want to be a welder or work in a place where they can use those kinds of tools,” Bob says. “And the metal medium is great for kids because then they own artwork that can be a legacy that will be there for them to look at for 50 years.”
Bob says he gets an idea and creates sculptures within a particular theme until he completes the series. Some inspirations occur during work, like a scrap that curled away from a sheet of metal he was working on for another project. “I was cutting a job for somebody else that had nothing to do with art, and the drop reminded me of a ballet dancer. So, I sat down and made one. I have made quite a few of them now, from 12 inches to 12 feet. The one that is 12 feet tall stands on one toe and spins around. They are all the same basic piece.”
His other series touch on the themes of wind, flight, and leaves.
He shares interesting stories about how his works have ended up in unusual places. Steve Jobs chose what Bob calls a “funky table” that Bob created to display a vintage Apple computer in Apple’s Charlotte office. He also has a large installation in a science building at UNC-Chapel Hill that was commissioned after the builder neglected to put in conduit for lighting in a stairwell. That sculpture runs up the wall and was inspired by electron microscope photos of DNA.
Bob gets the most satisfaction out of building work that he knows is first rate. “The story of my life is how to win out over mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes the best pieces you do are when you make a mistake and it opens the door to something you haven’t been able to see.”
John Outlaw of Sumter creates sculptures out of metal at his Frog Eye Forge, located behind his house. He started off as a wood carver, but when he and his wife were building their house he decided to construct the metal staircase — his first project. The metal staircase features life-sized hounds pursuing a fox up the stairs.
A keen observer of nature, John enjoys creating sculptures of animals, flowers, plants, and other wild things. He has never advertised his work or put it in a gallery, but the pieces he fashions are purchased enthusiastically by folks who have heard about him. The sculptures are life-sized and can be displayed indoors or outside.
John is well known locally. “Someone will get a piece of something, and their friend will see it and want something like it. Even though I’ve never had a website or a gallery, I’ve been able to place all of my work that I’m willing to let go,” he says. “The most challenging thing is for someone to give you a specific order or commission piece. What I see and what they see is usually a little different. I try to do what they want, but my natural instinct is to go with what I want. I haven’t taken as many commission pieces. I like to do what I want, and if someone wants it, that’s fine.”
John worked at Duke Energy before he retired and began creating his sculptures in his free time. “There are so many people who have elevated stress levels, and they are on medication to combat that. My artwork has been my therapy.”
But working in metal is hard on the body, and John has had some health issues in the past year that have been an obstacle to creating his art. At present he has returned to wood carving, making beautiful walking sticks that he has sold in 50 states.
Daniel Miner of Charleston started off as a Volkswagen mechanic. He incorporates auto shop equipment and car parts into his metal art, which can be found at Charleston City Market, and the Lowcountry Artists Gallery in downtown Charleston. Daniel is best known for his one-of-a kind trailer hitch covers, produced individually. “I wanted to create something artistic that could be displayed on a vehicle,” he says. “These have been fun for me. You can have any species of fish, freshwater or saltwater.”
For Daniel, metal art began as a hobby, not a profession. Six years ago he and his wife, Angela, decided that it was time for him to become an artist full time. “Angela said, ‘Do it. I trust you.’ I couldn’t have done this without her. It would still be a hobby if it weren’t for her.”
He started off making roses out of cylinder head valves and repurposed steel, but the physically demanding labor that it required resulted in two surgeries, so he has moved onto other pieces. He favors heavy, thick-gauge metals, and most of his subjects are inspired by living on the Coast. He enjoys creating pieces that appear 3-D from every angle. He especially likes custom orders. “They push me to go beyond my comfort zone,” he says. “I learn something new and can incorporate that into the next piece.”
In addition to his artwork, he has also designed and made signs for local businesses and created outdoor sculptures for Charleston’s institutions, such as MUSC and the South Carolina Aquarium.
These diverse metal artists all share one important factor: They take their inspiration from the beauty they see around South Carolina.