Metallic personality

Artist Tom Shearer turns rusty old pieces of metal into beds, garden ornaments and voluptuous women

Photo By David Robert

My father, a sheet metal worker for more than 25 years now, picked up, mostly out of convenience, his father’s trade as a welder. My grandfather had worked in sheet metal all his life, and his creations, like my dad’s, were generally functional in use: ducts and conduits to transport foods, hot air, cold air, gasses, etc. Before he died, though, he managed to dabble in more artistic endeavors. In fact, my grandpa made the cross that reaches confidently into the sky on top of Reno’s Little Flower Church, on the corner of Plumb and Kietzke lanes.

As a kid, whenever we drove past the church, I was always reminded where the cross came from. Dad never said, “Your grandpa,” he always said, “My dad.” As in, “My dad made that cross.”

Today, Dad has been leaning toward the more creative side of metal working, too. For my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, he made my mom a copper rose, which he then had silver-plated.

Upon the family’s urging that he should undertake more artistic projects, my dad says, “I’m not an artist. A metal flower isn’t art, it’s simple. The stuff I make at work every day—getting the dimensions perfect—is harder than that.”

As someone who grew up in a family where metal working is a bedrock tradition, I looked forward to meeting and interviewing Tom Shearer, who creates remarkable works of art using the same kinds of tools and skills my father uses in his trade.

Shearer, 42, lives in south Reno, less than 10 miles from my dad’s home in Washoe Valley. His home is his workshop and gallery. When I arrive at his house, he’s in the process of working on about four different pieces. One of those is a 2.5-foot-tall hand that will shortly be making the sign-language sign for “I love you.” Another will be a 2-by-3-foot, two-dimensional wall decoration depicting a fish in the foreground and a fisherman in the background. He will “paint” the metals using water, heat treatments or special blends of patinas, which are dyes made out of salts and etching chemicals. The majority of the art decorating his own house is celestial themed: brilliant sun, star and moon curtain rods, bedposts, wall decorations and yard ornaments.

Looking around his workshop, it’s clear that Shearer’s field of work leaves slightly more room for error than my dad’s, even though the tools, the medium, the protective wear and the techniques are the same.

To cut metal, both Shearer and my dad generally use a plasma cutter, and to weld they usually use a MIG (metal inert gas) welder. MIG welders produce heat from an electric arc that is sustained between a wire feed electrode and the piece being welded. And when they weld, they both remind me to avert my eyes from the sun-bright arc, which is really the most surefire way to get me to look at it.

Shearer and Dad wear the same leather apron, an overall-like bib, separating at the crotch to cover the thigh of each leg; it protects them from flying sparks and sharp corners. They both wear leather boots; my dad prefers steel-toe, but Shearer thinks steel-toeless is safer.

Not all of Shearer’s art is quite as contemporary as this. He also does scenic western pieces and Southwestern-themed work.

Photo By David Robert

“If you ever drop something on a steel toe,” Shearer says, “the steel will break and go right into your toe. If the choice is between a severed toe and a broken toe, I’ll take the broken one.”

I wonder if my dad has ever thought of this. He buys a new pair of steel-toe boots every couple of years.

As I scan Shearer’s appearance, I don’t see any of the holes scorched into his clothing that were always so familiar on my dad. On any given day, a person could probably find 10 to 20 holes, from the size of pencil points to cigarette stubs, on my dad’s ratty, old flannel shirt. Shearer wears a green sweatshirt, worn only from trips through the wash. He has clean-cut, blond hair that’s graying a little behind the ears, sea-blue eyes, and modest, rectangular-shaped glasses.

Shearer’s father, like my dad and my dad’s dad, introduced him to the world of welding. He was a master cabinetmaker and welder. Shearer was always interested in what his dad did and started playing with wood and metal when he was 10 years old.

“As a child, I was fascinated with how things were put together,” he says. “I would dismantle everything I could get my hands on to see if I could reassemble it in a different way. This fascination took on new meaning when I discovered the joy and sometimes the frustration with working in metal.

“I was doing more woodworking when I started sculpting. But then I switched completely to metal. Metal is more forgiving. In wood, you throw the piece away if you make a mistake. In metal, you just cut or weld again.”

Shearer has worked in business management and pharmaceuticals, and he’s been a full-time metallurgical artist for only one year, although he has been working toward this goal for 10 years. He creates commissioned pieces all the time and has shown his work around the United States. He has sold work to clients as far away as the Netherlands. He’s even sold his work to an “I-don’t-want-to-be-named,” white-haired, art-collecting celebrity whom you may remember from old Saturday Night Live episodes or as the star of the goofy comedy The Jerk.

Shearer’s wife, Tamra, became involved in the art of metal working seven years ago as Shearer began to share his passion and teach her. (I don’t think my dad could get my mom to cut one tiny hole in a piece of metal, even if he paid her in diamonds.)

The skills were easy for Tamra to pick up, as her father is a master woodworker (it seems this sort of stuff runs in the family) and her mother a painter. There is no end to the art that decorates the walls, floors, closets and bathrooms of the Shearer home.

“Tamra whole-heartedly supports my passion of creating metal art,” Shearer says. “[She] has a full-time job that supports us monetarily while I build a client base. She also supports me spiritually with her encouragement and input on my creations.”

This kinetic sculpture is just one of at least nine pieces decorating Shearer’s yard. David Robert

Photo By David Robert

Right now, Shearer makes everything from whimsical, three-dimensional, kinetic, outdoor sculptures to two-dimensional, Southwestern wall hangings. I don’t see anything quite as delicate as the rose my dad made within his house; Shearer’s work tends to be much larger in scale.

“I do a little bit of everything,” he says. “My favorite, though, is furniture. People use it and touch it. And you tailor it to the people’s needs. … You go into their house and see how they live and customize the piece according to that.”

The first bed Shearer ever made was a king-sized pedestal bed for him and his wife, although he ended up giving it away. Many of the beds he makes for clients include parts recovered from old cars or from Army surplus salvagers. His pieces range in price from a few dollars to thousands.

He uses found objects procured from scrap yards, yard sales or trash heaps and has traveled as far away as Oregon looking for the perfect piece of metal. You might even hear Shearer knocking at your door someday, offering to clean up your yard if he can just have that piece of steel that’s rusting against the side of your house.

Shearer welds out of Reed High School on Monday nights, when he attends Truckee Meadows Community College’s Welding for the Arts class. Students in his class, instructed by welder, woodworker and artist John Septien, recently swept the four prize-winning spots in the TMCC Student Art Exhibit’s sculpture category.

“I’ve been in the class three years now, Shearer says. “I just needed to get out of the house. It gets lonely being in my workshop by myself all the time. What I like about the class is seeing other people do different things than I do. Their creativity inspires me.”

“There’s a great exchange of ideas in this class,” Septien says. “Students are all doing very different things, but they have the connection of working in the same medium and working with recycled materials.”

Shearer and Septien get some of their recycled metal from the sheet metal company Ray Heating Products Inc., which happens to be where my dad works. Like them, my dad is not shy about bringing scrap metal home to weld and manipulate into his own creations, although his creations are of a slightly different kind.

Dad makes furniture and flowers only when there’s a need. The flowers come in handy at birthdays and anniversaries. He’s made cabinets for friends (the kinds that go in a garage and not in the house), drums for holding fuels (he made the kerosene tank in my own backyard) and bed stands, just frames, no fancy decorations.

I tell Shearer that I would love to see my dad undertake more artistic endeavors. He pays so much attention to detail, I think he could be great at it, but I don’t thing he can handle the idea of being an artist.

Fortunately for art lovers, Shearer can. And he intends to continue producing high-quality metal art to the end of his days, just like my grandpa.