“It’s Either Me or the Landfill”: Metal Sculpture by Dick Cooley Print
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 12 September 2006 23:02

"Sunbeam, Airstream, Toaster Camper" by Dick Cooley Glancing at the Dick Cooley metal sculpture that he calls "my Sunbeam, Airstream, Toaster Camper," your first thought is likely to be: Look at that - a toaster on roller skates.

But stare at it a bit longer. Hey - there's a bottle opener for the grill. That's a cheese-grater awning. The lights are actually nuts. And wait a minute ... is that what I think it is?

Yup. "I have a martini shaker on the front for a hitch," Cooley said during a recent phone interview. "I always try to put many different things in a piece."

Cooley, a resident of West Bend, Wisconsin, who will be showing his work at this weekend's Riverssance festival, has been selling his welded metal sculptures for 27 years - full-time for the past seven. He says that, for those who buy his works, his creations are "always a conversation piece. They're always trying to count how many different pieces I have in a piece, and sometimes they'll find another one a year or two later that they didn't notice before."

Not surprising considering what Cooley says are the "thousands" of metallic sculptures he's made over the years, and the diverse inventory of items employed in their creation - if it's made of metal, it's probably been part of a Dick Cooley work.

In addition to toasters, skates, and martini shakers, Cooley has used silverware, washers, combination locks, colanders, spark plugs, sprockets, gears, bread pans ... the list could go on and on. And does.

"I made a real cool Zamboni out of the motor from a Curry's vacuum cleaner," he says. "I make little grills out of steel doorknobs. I have a bullet casing for the air tank on a scuba diver. I use brass bullet shells for my golf bags." He's even made a Harley "with a Nutcracker chassis. Some of the welder guys, they can't believe I can weld some of these metals together. But if they have any kind of steel in them, they tend to hold."

Cooley's art career began in what he calls "a professional capacity," when he took a welding course after high school. "I never took any shop classes in high school, or anything like that. I never went to college for art. My elementary art teacher always says she taught me everything I know."

But after purchasing a small gas torch for himself, Cooley began creating metal sculptures "as a hobby," and soon discovered that there was a definite market for his works. The artist says he began "to get into some of the biggest art shows in the country - for arts and crafts anyway - and they were selling fairly good, and I'd lost my other job, and I thought, ‘Let's put a real furnace in the garage.'"

With his wife working a full-time job - "Without my wife," Cooley says, "I wouldn't be able to do any of this" - he embarked on his career as a professional artist, and admits that "I spend most of my time looking for the pieces I use in my sculptures," as the creation of the works themselves "take[s] under an hour if I have all the pieces right in front of me."

Most of the materials come from where you might expect - "mostly thrift stores, secondhand shops," Cooley says. "I go to pawn shops when I'm in the South, and lately I've been having to go to antique stores, 'cause they're more likely to have this kind of thing."

Cooley, though, also has a network of friends looking out for him. "I have, like, five garages in my hometown saving plugs for me," he says, "and three small-engine places, and a Harley dealer. I go through 5,000 used plugs a year. It's either me or the landfill."

The artist even receives unsolicited items. "I do this all out of my one-car garage," Cooley says, adding that he'll often get to his garage "and there'll be a little box of stuff there that somebody had left for me."

With his pieces selling, Cooley says, for "between nine and a hundred dollars," his metal sculptures have been embraced (although probably not literally) by both art collectors and those who might not ordinarily buy art.

At a show in Chicago, Cooney reveals, "a gentleman in a three-piece-suit, he looked at my pieces and bought one of my tractors that was eight-wheel-drive, so the piece had to weigh, like, 50 pounds. He said, ‘My wife has decorated the whole house in her stuff, and I want this on the coffee table.' Men, once in a while ... they'll see something and they'll buy it. My wife," he laughs, "calls it ‘man crap.' They won't think twice, they won't walk away and come back - they'll buy it right then. To have something they want."


Further information on Dick Cooley's metal sculptures is available by e-mailing Cooley at ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

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