Nikki Gulick (Iron Horse Metal), Brenda Stredwick (Iron Maiden Welding), and Brittany Comeaux (LadyForge Jewelry)
They have muscle, moxie, and might. They hammer and strive under the premise that metal is forever. In the process, they’ve proved that there are no boundaries in art. Nikki Gulick. Brenda Stredwick. Brittany Comeaux. Three welders working with raw materials, determined to do the best they can.
Iron Horse Metal, Fairfield
Turning rubbish into something redeemable is also one of the underpinnings of another metal artist named Nikki Gulick, owner of Iron Horse Metal, in Fairfield.
Nikki’s business too started as a hobby, sometime around 2011. The business has had its fits and starts and while she still enjoys farming and ranching—raising cattle and running hay on the side—she’s managed to eke out a living creating and selling her metal art.
A native of Fairfield and 2004 graduate of Fairfield High School, Nikki’s exposure to farming, ranching, and welding started at birth. Her father, Dave, had been a plasma welder and he taught Nikki how to hold and manage a plasma cutter. Several years ago, her parents asked her to design an iron farm and ranch sign, one that the folks could dangle at the entrance to their driveway. The commission provided Nikki was an opportunity to nurture her creativity.
“It was something that intrigued me,” said Nikki. “I learned how to work at it (metal art), and I started ordering other things, and it took off like wildfire. I made a coat rack for myself and some small things and then I had a stockpile of stuff to show and sell at festivals and shows. “
Nikki loved the feeling of the process, the experimentation of metal, the ability to showcase a vision, and, mostly, the way that art enlivened the dormant longing within to create. She loved practicing art while in high school, gravitating primarily to painting and pencil drawing. But metal was special; it expanded her vision in a method that fine arts didn’t.
“I like wildlife and western and ranching stuff, and while I don’t consider it super-feminine, people tell me things like, ‘your elk is much more feminine than what a guy would do.’ I get that type of compliment a lot.”
Nikki said that when she is the recipient of a chauvinistic comment or a flippant remark about her gender, she uses such moments as opportunities to smile and to sell. “There are men who won’t believe me when I tell them that this is what I do, and, yes, I can do it all alone. But then, it seems like once that’s aside, they are almost more willing to buy from me.
Throughout the years, she acquired the confidence to bravely repurpose some of her clients’ family heirlooms, such as milk cans, shovels and saws. “It’s nerve-racking to take great-grandma’s special shovel and old saw and cut names into them. They’ve come out well so far, and that’s a good feeling.”
Tending to children, welding, posting photos of her work to social media, and handling all of the other essentials of the business side of things are all in a day’s work for Gulick. Her life is packed. Her life is pleasant. She has no complaints.
Iron Maiden Welding, Bozeman
Brenda L. Stredwick, proprietor of Iron Maiden Welding, was recycling metal before it was hip or fashionable, predating the rush to reuse. She doesn’t self-identify as an artist, or as a recycler, or as the most recent incarnation of the concept, as an ‘upcycler’; she’s a welder. Period.
“My work is functional and artistic and it’s fun to be both,” said Brenda. “I say that I’m a welder when people ask me what I do, and it’s odd to say artist because it’s such a generic term, and a welder is a given. That’s what I do all day long.”
The metal artist needs to be exposed to some degree of danger—and Brenda accepts that part of the trade. From the earliest age, she has had an appreciation of not just what once was, but what could once more be. To satisfy this pursuit, she will go any spot where the material resides, junkyards, scrapyards, town dumps, estate sales, garage sales, you name it. Sometimes someone else delivers to her doorstep.
“Once the word gets out that you collect these sorts of things, people will bring you stuff all of the time.”
Some of the items in Brenda’s shop awaiting revolution from waste to wonder include ball bearings, door handles, gas tank lids, drill bits, and various automobile springs and chains. Her shop is home to a host of random found objects, from pieces she has yanked out of bigger machines such as industrial swathers and balers or decayed automobiles. Piles of wreckage courtesy of Pacific Steel are another common source of goods.
“I’ll buy vehicles to strip them down and to use,” said Brenda. “Things like springs out of the automobile hoods. I was doing it before it was cool to be green.”
“My dad’s nickname was “MacGyver” (a reference to the ABC action-adventure television series which debuted in 1985), and he could fix anything, and he was a collector of sorts. He had the mentality that whatever he found that he could use it. He was clever and crafty and I was always outside with him. He worked as an electrician, and he didn’t like welding, so he handed me the weld because he didn’t like to do it.”
“I love coming here and being here,” said Brenda, referring to Iron Maiden Welding’s shop-studio. “Wedding presents, birthday presents, yard art, or classes, I’m happy. I’ve bartended and worked in restaurants since age 15, but I’ve always welded. It was scary to make the jump into full-time.
Even after all this time, Brenda said that interaction with confounded men is still common. “Men will look at my stuff and then they look at my husband, and they keep asking him about the work. It’s like they don’t even remotely process that it’s me who made it. That’s even after he repeatedly tells them, ‘No, I didn’t do this!’”
Brenda said that managing the naysayers has always been part and parcel of her occupation. She’s never had a problem attracting clientele, though she’s always had to deal with a general prejudice or judgment.
“There are people who feel that this isn’t what a woman should be doing. That’s hard when you are a woman in a male-dominated job. People will ask me, ‘why would you want to work in a job where you get dirty or get burned? It is a stigma. But I keep pushing on. I’ve raised three boys in the welding shop.”
Indeed, at Iron Maiden Welding, 2503 Jackrabbit Lane, in Bozeman, visitors are welcome to observe Brenda’s work from premise to conclusion.
LadyForge Jewelry, Helena
Brittany Comeaux, owner of LadyForge Jewelry, thrives on substance, her style influenced by the availability of unorthodox materials. Her hand-forged jewelry employs relics to generate art and dialogue. Necklaces are inspired by her drive to rework the aged with a fresh story. Bracelets, rings, and earrings satisfy her craving to express the charm of change.
Her substance exists in the form of oxidized draw pulleys, railroad nail heads, or skeleton keys, or even antique poker chips or shiny, weighty coins—some materials she senses as ripe for creating works of art. She’s not looking at these items as things which have been lost; she’s always looking at what fortune has left—and what’s left she does her best to enhance.
“There are layers of stories to the old pieces,” said Brittany. “You can remix them with a new vibe, and when you do, you don’t lose the old story. This kind of art to me is much more multi-dimensional because of that. There’s the attention to detail involved and the pride of manufacturing… To me, this art feels substantial. The possibilities are endless.
If I am working steady and I’m positive, and if I can keep on open mind, I can take a rusty metal piece and make a necklace out of it.”
The artist in Brittany honors once-beloved personal artifacts and adds a bit of herself to the finish. She wants her art to tell the tale of the item—perhaps it’s a 100-year-old salt or jelly spoon, or a baroque pearl singled out from a mid-20th century necklace—but also a little bit of her story, too.
Born in Great Falls, Brittany, who formerly dealt in antiques in Oklahoma, took a break several years ago from collecting material to repurpose as art. “Because it snowballs. Stones. Necklaces. Coins. Skeleton keys. They took over my house.”
Using such recycled materials, she believes, is a good opportunity to make some type of comment about both overconsumption and the act of simplicity. Indeed, her required tools are few and overhead relatively lean: a nylon mallet; a mandrel tool; a couple of blocks of wood to shape the rings; a mechanic’s grade stamp set; a decent torch; a Fordham drill.
“Working (at my art) gives me the freedom to work early in the morning,” said Brittany. “It feels good to obsess and to have everything else take a back seat for a while.”