For someone who is terrified of electricity, I am a fairly competent welder. When I tell friends of my talent to fuse metal together at stunningly high temperatures, I am met with confused stares and accusatory statements. “But you’re scared to use jumper cables,” they’ll say, or, “You turn off the breaker before you change a light bulb.”
My interest in welding began about fifteen years ago when I watched a documentary about an artist who fashioned sheets of stainless steel into magnificent sculptures. I was captivated by the process. At the time, I was in search of a hobby that would demonstrate my masculinity but not endanger my well-being. Welding appeared to tick all of the boxes. It was manly. It was relatively safe. And it would give me a legitimate opportunity to wear overalls.
When I signed up for an introductory welding class at a technical school in Waynesville, North Carolina, I envisioned studying in the kind of bohemian artist studio I’d seen in the documentary. That dream was dashed on the first day of class when I entered a dirty two-car garage that smelled like an electrical fire. I was dressed in new Carhartt overalls, Timberland work boots, and carrying a shiny black welding helmet I’d adorned with brightly colored stickers to give it a bit more joie de vivre. The other students, all at least ten years my junior, seemed confused by my presence.
The instructor was a wiry, chain-smoking man named Mr. Plemmons, and through a haze of Marlboro smoke he explained that the purpose of the class was to learn a skill that would lead to a good paying job. I wanted to explain to Mr. Plemmons that I was more interested in the artistic side of welding but thought better of it when his first demonstration involved fusing an extension bracket to a trailer hitch.
Over the next twelve weeks, we worked on toolboxes, go-kart frames, and rusty lawnmower decks. It wasn’t exactly art, but I was learning a skill. The final week of class was devoted to a project of our own choosing. At my designated station in the back of the garage, I worked in solitude on my design, determined to impress everyone with my creativity.
On the last day of class we gathered around a workbench to unveil our projects. Mr. Plemmons lit a cigarette and called on the first student: “OK, Larry, whatcha got there?” Larry held up a small gate latch. “Boring,” I thought. When the next student proudly displayed a set of pitchfork tines I rolled my eyes: “Puh-leeze.” Soon it was my turn, and Mr. Plemmons pointed to the shop towel I had placed as a shroud over my project. “Well, let’s see it,” he said. I yanked at a corner of the towel and with a whoosh my masterpiece was revealed. “It’s a sunflower!” I said. “It spins when the wind blows.” Mr. Plemmons and the other students stared at me as if I had just taken out a compact and freshened up my lipstick. Truth be told my sunflower looked like a misshapen pizza perched atop a golf club shaft, but it was mine and I was proud of it.
Today that sculpture is a rusty chunk of metal sticking out of a flowerpot on my mother’s back porch. Seeing it reminds me of a time when in a torrent of sparks and smoke I let my creative energy run free. “What’s that supposed to be, again?” my mother will ask when I try to make it spin. “It’s a sunflower,” I’ll say. “A very manly sunflower.”