Some people look at an old, rusty wheel and see nothing but junk. Dustin Sypher sees art and a story.
“There’s been a few times we’ve made projects for these people and they start crying, and it brings back those memories in a sweet way,” Sypher said. “I know I did my job right when I get that type of emotion.”
Sypher is the owner of Tall Grass Forge, a found-art and blacksmithing business he and his wife Lisa started about seven years ago, he said. Taking old things and breathing new life into them is something for which he just has a knack, he said.
“I don’t know where my [ideas] come from. It just pops in my head and my imagination runs with it,” Sypher said. “I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s a divine kind of experience.”
His blacksmithing art ranges from such custom pieces as tables, candle holders and hand railings, to large found-art projects like the fence at the Wichita Botanica Gardens, he said.
“The botanica project was a lot of fun because it was all found objects,” he said. “In the Botanica garden, they were building the children’s garden and they wanted a farm section in the garden to teach kids where your food comes from so they wanted a fence made out of old farm pieces, but pre-1940s. So I went to the farm of the family who commissioned me to do that work.”
The term “artist” might evoke thoughts of a paintbrush and canvas, but Syphers’ tools are more likely to involve metal and a hammer, he said.
“Mainly I’m an artist that uses blacksmithing techniques to create my work,” he said. “I have branched out into doing hand railings and more traditional kinds of stuff. I’ve done everything from my own sculptures like birds — I keep going back to birds for some reason — I think because I enjoy watching them. I’ve done bird sculptures and hand railings, wine cellar doors, furniture or fencing.”
‘TRIAL AND ERROR’
His love for blacksmithing evolved over the years, but began with welding at a young age, he said, and his fascination for the trade grew from there.
“It started with art school, but before that it was learning how to weld in the junior high at Ottawa,” he said. “It goes back to seventh grade when I started being taught how to use brazing torches and whatnot. I took every shop class I could take during junior high and high school, and that led me to art school up at KU.”
The University of Kansas didn’t offer any art classes on welding or blacksmithing, Sypher said, and nearing graduation he wasn’t sure where his art path would take him.
“I was getting ready to graduate from college and was wondering ‘Now what?’ and ‘How can I still stay creative and make money?’” he said. “[A professor] took me to this guy in Kansas City he knew, and he was working in the basement in his house, and the lights just went off and I started reading anything I could get my hands on about blacksmithing and looking for tools.”
Sypher eventually found himself taking classes throughout the Midwest, he said, ultimately ending up in New Mexico.
“I eventually went to Turley Forge in New Mexico,” he said. “It was a three week class that walked you through step A and B and the typical processes of blacksmithing. Then it was trial and error — you just had to go out and do it.”
After completing his studies under Frank Turley, his journey landed him in Aspen, Colo., where he was exposed to the upscale world of blacksmithing, Sypher said.
“ ... I was working in a shop called Royal Forge, and it showed me the high-end of iron work,” he said. “I went from going on sights and measuring everything out to designing it, to making it, to finishing it and installing it.”
A NEW APPROACH
Sypher aims to take his business to a different level, he said, but will continue to create unique projects using blacksmithing techniques.
“My end goal is just to do sculptures,” he said. “A product line maybe of fun, creative furniture to lighting to actual sculpture work. It’d be fun to get into big pieces for corporations really. The main thing is to be creative and work for myself and enjoy life.”
Getting his work onto the shelves in stores is no easy feat, he said, but he would lose out on a lot of money if he only showed his work in galleries.
“For years it’s been doing your work and putting your portfolios together and sending them into galleries and they take 40 to 50 percent [of the profit] and that kind of hurts,” Sypher said. “We’re trying this antique mall approach. [Sharron Spence, owner of Front Porch Antiques, 534 N. Main St., Ottawa] is open seven days a week and we find people out looking for collectibles and antiques will go to art galleries and appreciate that too so we’ve got art sitting down [at Front Porch Antiques] and have the booth space [at art galleries].”
Working out of the shop at his house is fine for now, he said, but he’d like to not only find a place in town to work, but a place to teach classes.
“I get asked a lot to give classes in blacksmithing,” he said. “I think it’d be fun to start something in Ottawa with a teaching base in sculpture work and blacksmithing and drawing and painting — like a co-op setting where you bring other artists in to show their talents and skills. People are always eager to learn something new.”
‘THE REAL REWARD’
Many of his projects lead him to various locations across Kansas, he said, from family farms to scrap yards.
“I’ve been going to Bo Killough’s place in town and finding fun things out there, but most is from farms,” Sypher said. “I’ll have people call me and find out what I’m doing and instead of scrapping it, they think it’s neat I’m taking it and turning it into something neat to look at.”
Traveling to new places has given Sypher the opportunity to meet different people, he said, all with different stories and that’s something he enjoys the most.
“It’s inspiring because you don’t know who you’re going to meet,” Sypher said. “We were traveling around and you’d never guess because it was this old junky farmstead, but the guy was creating fuel cells — kind of a mad scientist guy. You never know who you’re going to meet, and that’s the beauty of it for me. We like traveling and looking around the bend and seeing what’s there.”
Much of his art comes from found art, but not all, he said. Many of his projects begin on the farm of a family who wants him to take old objects and turn them into something new, he added.
“[Clients] usually have a farm and they have this stuff and it belongs generally to a family member and then it turns into a mortal piece where you honor it,” he said. “I listen to the family talk about the stories of the family and I get ideas on how to represent those stories in the piece, and they get a kick out of it.”
One family in particular wanted a way to honor a grandfather who had a saying for everything in life, he said, so he took one of those sayings and incorporated it into his art.
“I had one project where the grandpa was a big influence in these kids’ lives,” he said. “He had a corn farm, and I forged up some corn and some pulleys and forged an iron rope and put the saying, ‘You can’t push a rope,’ so I burned those into the base of the project.”
Being able to give his clients what they want is all that matters in the end, Sypher said.
“They get to talk about their loved ones to other people when they come in to see the piece, so they’re sharing who their passed family members were,” he said. “That’s really the reward — to be able to do that for people. It’s almost more rewarding than the actual paycheck. As long as the client’s happy, that’s the main thing.”