Scrap metal and recycled materials are winning combo for Hastings artist

Dale Lewis
Dale Lewis poses with "Mother of Dragons," currently on display at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
Courtesy Dale Lewis

On Minnesota Now, we love to talk to creatives around the state to get insight into their art and their lives.

Cathy Wurzer talked to Dale Lewis, an award-winning sculpture artist based in Hastings, Minn.

His works are on display across the state and the Midwest. His most recent exhibition has 14 life-size statues on display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: This is Minnesota Now on MPR News. I'm Cathy Wurzer. Thanks for joining us. On the program as you know, we love to talk to creatives around the state to get insight into their art, and their lives. Our next guest is Dale Lewis. He's an award winning sculpture artist based in Hastings, Minnesota. His works are on display across the state and across the Midwest. His most recent exhibition has 14 life sized statues on display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Dale is on the line. Welcome to the program.

DALE LEWIS: Hi Cathy. Thanks.

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad to have you with us. To say, Dale, that your art is distinctive is a bit of an understatement. How do you describe your pieces?

DALE LEWIS: I just kind of sum it up as being a scrap metal artist. But it's really a much more than that. I was a electrical tech and machinist, and worked for a specialized machine builder. And my wife and I were buying houses on the side and fixing them up. And so I quit my real job because I was pretty busy with the house thing. And then in '08, the real estate market collapsed, kind of shut the side job down. So I found myself without a real job and with lots of time. But I still had health benefits. Like so many people, that's a big issue.

So I ended up with time to play with art. And I kind of started with mosaics, because I had a sister that moved to the Virgin Islands and didn't want to move her mosaic supplies, so she lined me up with some projects and stuff. And I played around with that for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed it.

So in 2010, I bought a welder and just started playing around with metal, and started out making little garden steaks, and dragonflies, and stuff like that, and it grew rapidly to the bigger pieces, a lot of animals, and plants, and different things. And I've been involved in sculpture walks kind of across the country, maybe 10 or 12 in a year or so. I started winning some People's Choice Awards. And typically, that's the top prize in these sculpture walks. They buy the sculpture for permanent display. And I had some other sales, so. To my surprise, after a few years, my hobby started to generate some income.

CATHY WURZER: So I've seen your stuff in person, and your work reminds me of another artist that I adore, I don't know if you know her, Judy Onofrio of Rochester. She's into large scale 3D mosaic kind of mixed media pieces. And she says she's self-taught. So it sounds like you also are self-taught.

DALE LEWIS: Exactly. Like I said, it was just a retirement hobby. And so everything I figured out, I kind of did that on my own. And I pretty much know how not to do a lot of things.

CATHY WURZER: [LAUGHS] Through trial and error. [LAUGHS]

DALE LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: How long does it take you to do a piece? As I say, I was kind of up close and personal with a few of your pieces recently, and Oh my gosh, it looks like it would take, if I were to do something like that, a year to do one piece.

DALE LEWIS: Yeah, yeah, I get asked this. This is like one of my least favorite questions, and it's the one I get asked the most, because everybody wants to know. And I kind of weasel out of it and tell them, well, my pieces have grown so much that it's kind of like a two or three month average. And they're pretty much all involved enough that it feels like a bit of a celebration when I finish one. And I purposely don't keep track of it. Because I don't punch a clock. I try not to even think about it, although I do get asked all the time about it.

One thing that's pretty obvious to me is I'm faster than a lot of artists for some reason. I don't know if it's because I spend so much time thinking about it when I should be sleeping or what. But I do seem to be quicker than other artists that I know.

CATHY WURZER: So are you constructing in your head before you even start the project?

DALE LEWIS: Yeah. Again, that's the only place I can do anything, is in my head. Cause I can't really sketch, I can't really draw. I do very few commissions because it's sometimes kind of painful. A customer might want me to sketch something out, what it's going to look like, and I really can't do that. So it works out much better if I can just plan things out in my head. I'm constantly going back and forth between a subject, first, the sculpture and materials, and trying to match ideas up that work good together.

CATHY WURZER: So if you call yourself a scrap metal artist, are you always picking through junkyards and that kind of thing?

DALE LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, my area, it's not pretty.

[LAUGHTER]

But that's just the nature of the biz. When I started on, I had to collect things, and now I get a lot of material, and I try to use some judgment about what I collect and stuff.

CATHY WURZER: [CHUCKLES] It looks like you also have a really good sense of humor, just judging from the pieces I've seen.

DALE LEWIS: Well, that's one of the things I wanted to mention, was I think that's one of the common threads in my sculptures. I make a lot of different things, a lot of different materials, but humor is really part of it. In my head, pretty much everything I make is humorous in some way. Some of that's simple, like just the fact that I'm using silverware to make a cherry tree, with red marble and fork tines wrapped around red marbles, and spoons for leaves. And I find it funny that it looks so neat and it's silverware. So it's kind of humorous to me.

But that's probably why I've made so many flying pigs. I just started the concept of when pigs fly to be entertaining. I made one fly in a pass scale helicopter. And so that was the pork chopper for a title. And I have a Wright brothers first plane model. And it's a half scale model with a happy pig flying it. It's when pigs fly the wright way spelled with a W.

[LAUGHTER]

CATHY WURZER: Is there any way to teach what you do to others?

DALE LEWIS: I don't have any secrets. Some artists might feel like we're giving away trade secrets or not. I encourage anybody that has the interest to give it a go. I didn't know I could do this until I tried. And it really comes down to whether you like it or not. And I just have a passion for it and find it entertaining to be able to take scrap and make it look like something. And I'm always willing to talk about anything I've figured it out.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering-- I have this mental picture of you in Hastings, and your front yard and your backyard's full of scrap metal. Are you working in your garage often?

DALE LEWIS: So what I'm doing, I got a really lame shop. It's a 2 and 1/2 car garage with an 8 foot door. So a lot of things. I either have to finish up outside or lay them down to get out the door, which isn't ideal. It's kind of the way it is. I'm kind of an old guy. It's like I'd like to have a real shop, but I don't want to invest too much. It's kind of funny too, I'm 66, and I finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up, you know.

CATHY WURZER: Good for you. Many people as you know, Dale, never get to figure it out. I can only imagine that the neighbors are pretty entertained by you.

DALE LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, people seem to always have one neighbor that's a problem. But for the most part, yeah, everybody's happy.

CATHY WURZER: Now what are you currently working on?

DALE LEWIS: I got some odds and ends, some repairs I need for-- I just brought this big show home from Iowa. And so there's little things I need to take care of. But in the works I have 250 pounds of 3 inch masonry nails that I ordered, and my plan is to make a life sized bear sitting in a blueberry patch. I think it's going to be really cute.

A few years ago, I made a beaver out of the same nails. They look like old fashioned square cut nails. They're cut masonry nails. And the beaver just turned out beautiful. He just looks so soft and funny. And so I thought, well, it'd be a good texture for a bear.

And I've made blueberry bushes in the past, where I use translucent blue marbles wrapped with fork tines wrapped around them. And so you get a couple of berries in each fork. And then it looks a lot like a blueberry. And because they're translucent, when the sun hits them, they just light up. And I use spoons for leaves, so. Picture a bear planted in the middle of a blueberry patch looking all happy.

CATHY WURZER: I like [LAUGHS] That's a great mental picture, Dale. Oh my goodness. I tell you what, you are a talented, and I'm glad that you found your niche in the world and are creating some really cool art.

DALE LEWIS: Well, thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. Well now, where can people see your stuff?

DALE LEWIS: Well, my website is pretty good. It's artistdalelewis.com. Yeah, and there's links on there telling you where shows are. And I encourage people to come by my yard because I just brought the show home from Ames. I have a friend's property nearby, which is listed on my website, where they have a beautiful property right on a bike path and on a I-way, and this summer, I made two bison, American bison. It's kind of a good timing because Dakota County is bringing in a herd of buffalo in Spring Lake Park. Their plan is to have a dozen bison there permanently.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Wow. Well, you know what, Dale, I appreciate your time here. It was fun talking to you. Thank you so much. And all the best.

DALE LEWIS: Yeah, yeah, thank you.

WOMAN: That's Cathy Wurzer talking with artist Dale Lewis. He's an award winning sculptor based in Hastings, Minnesota. His most recent traveling exhibit is at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa. But as he said, you can see all his work throughout Minnesota. For more information about him and to see some of his work, which is really remarkable, you can go to artistdalelewis.com.

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