Boy, does Ryan Sharpe have a fish story to tell . . . but, like most fish stories, who’s gonna believe this whopper?
Getting Scrappy // When welding his fish creations, Ryan Sharpe (above) collects discarded scrap-metal from job sites, then crafts each piece by hand with a plasma cutter, guaranteeing a one-of-a-kind design.
When Sharpe, a former professional golfer, finally gave up chasing golf balls—professionally, at least—he joined his stepfather’s mechanical engineering company to chase dollars. Then the 35-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, man, who hadn’t done any fly-fishing since he was a boy of 8 or 9, decided to chase fish, too. He’d gone to college in the mountains of western North Carolina—prime fly-fishing country—and never cast the first fly into the water, and yet suddenly the fish were calling his name.
If that doesn’t sound fishy enough, Sharpe then got an inexplicable itch to use the welding skills he’d learned at his stepfather’s firm and create metal sculptures of fish. Seeing the mutual passion of other fly-fishing enthusiasts, he figured he could capitalize on their shared “sickness,” as he calls it, and lure them with some unique, fishing-themed art. “I bet these people would really dig it,” he remembers thinking, “if I could make a scrap-metal fish.”
Thus was born Dead Weight Fly, Sharpe’s online art shop, where scales and sculpture collide, resulting in one-of-a-kind, fused-fish creations that transcend the usual—pardon the pun—clickbait. “I like the fact that every fish is made one-of-a-kind,” Sharpe says. “I don’t have a stencil. I don’t burn this thing out on some computer program where every fish has the same-size body, the same-size fins, and the same-size head—I don’t do that. So a trout, a striped bass, a bonefish, a tarpon, a redfish—I’ve made tons of these fish, but no two look alike, and I think that uniqueness is what turns people on.”
Up to Scale // By utilizing a grinder, Sharpe brings out accents on the metal, almost like detailing with a pencil. He also creates blues and greens by applying heat from a welder, which is especially useful when designing colorful fish, like the rainbow trout.
Sharpe’s creative process follows the one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure premise, as he literally begins each fish with a piece of scrap metal, often metal that he’s rescued from worksites he visits for his day job. Even on the occasions when he buys new sheet metal, he typically lets it sit outside for a couple of weeks to give it a more textured, weathered look than its usual smooth, shiny appearance.
Working out of a makeshift studio at his stepfather’s company in Greensboro, Sharpe uses soapstone to hand-draw the individual pieces of the sculpture—the fish’s body, head, and fins—onto the metal, and then cuts them out with a hand-held plasma cutter. He welds the other pieces to the body—one side only, as these are two-dimensional sculptures—and then gives the fish its character.
“I can use my grinder almost like a pencil and put some accents in it to where it really has some contrast around the borders and things like that,” he explains. “Also, if I’m making a trout with all the colors, like a rainbow trout, I’m able to bring that out with heat from the welder. It brings these blues and greens out in the metal, and you’re able to get some nice contrast.” He might also use, say, a piece of perforated steel to give the fish a more scaly texture.
But, honestly, if you want to know what gives Sharpe’s fishy sculptures the most character, the eyes have it. He uses whatever old, odd pieces he can find—pipe-fittings, gears, even discarded fly-fishing reels—to create a fish eye that pops out.
“There’s one series of fish I made that had old parts from a textile mill that we tore apart,” Sharpe says. “I mean, we’re talking about gears of equipment that ran cotton back in the ’40s, which is pretty cool if you think about it. Those people don’t really know it, but their fish has a piece of Americana on it.”
Sharpe has made fish sculptures of all sizes, ranging from a foot-long bluegill to a 9-foot-long arapaima, a large, torpedo-shaped fish from South America that can weigh upwards of 400 pounds. Prices begin at about $200 and range up to approximately $3,000, depending on the size of the sculpture and the materials required to make it. He figures he’s made and sold about a hundred sculptures since launching Dead Weight Fly three years ago.
Creating fly-fishing art (he sells original illustrations, too) has been a financial boost for Sharpe, but he’s not just chasing dollars. He’s chasing memories, too—memories of his childhood, when his late grandfather taught him how to fly-fish.
“We’d go to ponds and I’d catch little brim and stuff like that—those are the memories I have with him,” Sharpe says. “And I wish he could see me now and what I’m doing, because he would’ve loved it. That would be really cool.”
Dead Weight Fly, Greensboro, NC. For commission orders or to see more of Ryan’s work, go to deadweightfly.com or @deadweightfly on Instagram.