Fusing the way of the welder with drawing and sculpting, Aulne artist Julie Starks conjures new metallic life from the heavy heaps of scrap metal that adorn her lawn.
Strobes of flashing light and the smell of burnet metal emanate from her workshop as the crackle of her welder mingles with songs of jazz singers like Nina Simone, whom Starks listens to while working on a project.
“For me, my welder is almost like a pen, but welding is more tactile than drawing,” Starks said. “I can write, draw, color things, make 3D texture, and add depth. I also can take a piece of metal, heat it up and bend it into a flower petal.”
As owner of Mental Case Metal Works, Starks takes refuge in the self-describe “creative lunacy” of her home-based workshop.
“My shop is my therapy, actually it’s cheaper than therapy,” she said. “I can work through anything in my life when I’m in my shop.”
Since she learned to weld when she was 20 while knocking-out custom paint jobs at a motorcycle shop, she has welded in several factory and manufacturing settings on myriad projects and held down various other positions.
“The guys in the motorcycle shop wanted to teach me,” Starks said. “I guess they figured they wouldn’t have to do as much if they taught me how to weld. Since then, I’ve been a waitress, a secretary, a CNA, a plumber, a portrait artist. I’ve done a lot, enough to know what I like.”
Alongside the custom fencing jobs she performs now, Starks works on a commission and made-to-order basis at Mental Case Metal Works, and said she almost has more orders than she can keep up with, many of which get pet names while she forms them, including Gail, a “giant roadrunner bird.”
“This is Gail, the goony bird,” Starks said as she welded the sculpture’s rusty ring eyes to its orange posthole digger beak. “I talk to everything I make. Gail was being a little temperamental earlier.”
Starks said Gail didn’t want to stand up after she put on her saw blade, door hinge, and bedspring plumage.
While helping Gail get her balance, Starks also is transforming a 1953 Mercury Monterey bumper into a bar for a customer’s man cave and making a table out of a crankshaft and pistons, while working on abstract garden art sculptures, and other projects.
“People usually give me general directions and a vague idea of what they want,” she said. “They might want something big and tall or small and pretty, maybe just something pearly, or something sharp with saw blades. Sometimes people also bring me things to work on. Those are really fun because I know the items are special to them and I get to turn them into something new.”
She sketches and lays out all her ideas and shows customers what she has in mind before she ever fires up her torch.
“I’m not very good at planning; I’m a big picture thinker. I’m more the jump-off-a-diving-board-before-checking-to-see-if-there-is-water-in-the-pool type person,” Starks said. “I change my mind a lot. Sketching projects out helps me spend less time on the welding and physical labor.”
To help expand her business budget she also barters services, as with a sign she is working on in trade for ad space at a county bait shop.
“I’m a single mom on a limited budget so I can’t spend a lot of money on brand new polished steel,” Starks said. “I know a lot of ranchers and farmers and I like going out and dig through junk piles and look for car parts. You never know what you’ll find. So I use a lot of scrap metal for up-cycled or re-purposed items.”
Starks plans to take Gail, the goony bird. and a menagerie of drill bit dragonflies, chain link scorpions, gear spiders, and other artwork to the Park it and Market event Saturday in Marion Central Park.
Until then she likely will be in her shop shrouded in a shower of sparks, sweet-talking her welded creations into existence.
“I can be as crazy as I want with my art and my metal and nobody has to understand it but me,” Starks said. “I love it. It really is freedom.”