Al Nickelsen has steel in his heart and “nickel” in his name, and that’s a good thing, because he’s a metal sculptor and the artist behind Steel Nickel Designs.
While some work to beat swords into plow parts, Nickelsen uses his plasma cutter to turn wood saws into pine trees. The 68-year-old Rochesterite lives in the Kutzky Park neighborhood where he creates everything from wobbly kinetic art in the form of balancing men and tiptoe birds to guitar sculptures that copper back decorated with spark plugs and jack-o’-lanterns made from cast iron. liquid propane tanks.
“I’m a junk artist,” Nickelsen said. He takes discarded objects such as silverware, rusty shovels, nails and steel wool, and turns them into unique metal sculptures. “If I see a piece of metal, I’ll look at it and suddenly think that could be … whatever I do.”
Although Nickelsen tried his hand at metal as he learned welding from his mentor, Tom Bass, in the early years of his 38-year career with Rochester Public Utilities, his artistic metal sculpting didn’t begin until he took up welding. class of 1976 at Rochester Area Vocational Technical Institute, now Rochester Community and Technical College. On the last day of class, the instructor left the students to create something from scrap metal available at the shop. Nickelsen made a small model of a steam roller from some discarded pipe sections and other scraps. His teacher was impressed.
All these years later, Nickelsen got hold of that first sculpture.
Nickelsen bought a torch from a co-worker in 1977 and began making metal sculptures with his friend Al Henderson. The two call their shop, a garage in Meadow Park “Al’s Place.”
“If you have a birthday coming up, we’ll do a gift,” Nickelsen said. “We’re always giving things away.”
Although Nickelsen retired from his metal sculpting when his first child was born in 1979, his second wife, Nancy, took the tip money she made as a hairdresser to buy Nickelsen a welder for Christmas in 1987, and he never stopped working. art since then. She sold art at regional festivals and craft shows and was also a member of the Southeastern Minnesota Visual Artists co-op when it was located in Peace Plaza.
“I have pieces that have gone to Japan, England and California,” he said.
In 2001, Nickelsen and his wife quit their jobs and moved to Yuma, Arizona, where they remodeled several properties. While there, her husband, who worked at a local art center, encouraged her to submit a sculpture to the Gowan Seed Company’s Lettuce Days contest. He made a cornstalk sculpture eight feet tall. It is polished to look like chrome and has corn husks modeled from actual corn plants. His submission won best-in-show out of 36 artists, and he still has the plaque to prove it. He also made a large skeletal maiden using a 50-gallon drum as a skirt for Yuma’s Day of the Dead celebration.
Eventually, after another grandchild was born, Nickelsen returned to Rochester. These days, Nickelsen sells her sculptures at Threshold Arts on South Broadway and at The Chateau.
Although Nickelsen says friends and neighbors often find discarded metal objects for her to turn into art, she also finds the building blocks of her sculptures at estate sales and garage sale. He even gets some metal from local businesses such as used LP tanks that he gets from Thorondson Oil & LP Gas Company.
Using his welder, torch, plasma cutter and a 100-year-old bench vice he inherited from his uncle, Nickelsen turned buckets of nails into beautiful wall hanging crosses. He turns the rebar and coat hangers he gave to his children into family trees.
“I’m just a junk yard dog who likes to recycle,” he said.
Nickelsen estimates that he has created thousands of sculptures over the years. He will sell some of his most recently completed sculptures at the Mayo Clinic Employee Craft Show at the Mayo Civic Center on Nov. 19 where his art will be “iron.”
“I always dreamed of being a country western singer when I was a kid, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so I took that bucket and turned it into art,” Nickelsen said. “The ability to see things that others call trash and turn them into art, that makes me happy.”