CUSHING -- From a distance the figures on the rolling hillside appear to be stopped in time like a mirage from the past.
Horses and rider are black silhouettes against the South Dakota sky. But their beginnings lie about 300 miles away.
Back in Cushing on the first day of fall metal artist Kelly Hamson is putting the final touches on two pieces -- a 6-foot, 2-inch medicine man who looks skyward with pipe in hand and his 19-hand horse. Last week he took the pieces, the latest ones for the South Dakota hillside, to a client's home near Pierre, S.D.
The steel silhouettes, weighing 300 to 500 pounds each, began as drawings, which were scanned into a computer and then cut from steel sheets.
Kelly Hamson posed with a horse silhouette at his shop in Cushing. A medicine man silhouette will be displayed with the horse in Pierre, S.D.
The sheer weight of the pieces made them difficult to work with. Larger pieces were then welded together and strengthened with rebar and angle iron to stand against prairie wind gusts.
At first the silhouettes attracted friends and then strangers to Melanie Urich's home.
Early this week a film crew is expected to shoot a commercial with the silhouettes to help market the region. From a distance they look real.
The project began when Fred Urich, like others before him, saw the signs for Up North Custom Metal Art at the Hamson home along Highway 10 in Cushing, about 40 miles west and south of Brainerd.
Artist Kelly Hamson, Cushing, stood next to his American Indian silhouettes that reside on a hillside near Pierre, S.D. The silhouettes have gained such attention they are expected to be used in a marketing campaign for the area. (Submitted photo)
Urich had seen large figures of metal art in Oklahoma and wondered if Hamson could create similar silhouettes of American Indians on horseback for his daughter as a connection to family heritage and in time for the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In September of 1804, Lewis and Clark were near Pierre and sought to have a council with the Sioux.
Melanie Urich put the steel statutes up so she could see them from her home. Public viewing popularity has grown so much she has strangers regularly coming up her driveway and has talked to Hamson about commissioning a steel gate now as well. And there may be more pieces for the hillside in the future.
In Cushing, the Hamsons, Kelly and his wife Kim, say the work has been good for them.
The medicine man will be added to the collection in Pierre, S.D.
"It turned out to be a bigger deal than we ever thought," Kim Hamson said.
Hamson's metal art has created name signs, archways above driveways, garden hose holders, key racks, bed headboards and three-dimensional decorative scenes displayed in homes.
The work runs the gamut from more blunt edges for big projects to intricate and delicate details such as thin reeds and cattails near a trio of anglers armed with rod and reel.
The computer helps with dimensions and the actual cutting is a mix of computer technology and hand-held cutting tool.
Hamson uses a scanner and computer to help create the metal patterns along with a plasma torch.
For the large horse silhouette, Hamson rustproofed the metal and then covered the piece with an oil-based black enamel paint.
He typically works with 12-gauge steel in sheets that are 4 feet by 10 feet. Larger designs are completed in sections and then welded together.
The horses in South Dakota are mounted on square metal posts that slide into bigger poles secured in the ground with concrete.
Hamson's workshop has overtaken the family garage. A amber curtain hangs from the ceiling over his work table and a water table sits just below in an effort to reduce the fine powder created by manipulating the metal.
"It's really bad to breathe in," Kim Hamson said.
Thin shiny metal shavings from recent work crunch underfoot. Hamson has been a welder for 20 years. He went to school to learn the trade. He acts as a professional fishing guide and drives truckloads to Chicago to help out while the metal art business grows.
"I always do my best thinking on the road," he said.
The home-based metal art and welding business was started about a year-and-a-half ago.
But the idea began much earlier when Hamson saw a lamp with a metal scene cut out of it while he was at an elk hunting lodge out west. The owner said she really wanted a lamp like it with an elk figure. Hamson thought he could do that. Three years later he is.
Prices range from small scenes to go with nameplates from $25 to $150, depending on detail, to a large horse silhouette, which may cost $2,000, depending on installation and distance traveled.
One commissioned work included a 6-foot weather vane of a plumber holding a plunger outstretched in his hand as though armed with a sword. It turns to indicate the wind direction and helps promote a plumbing service.
Hamson also created 50 duck signs, one for each chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
But much of the work comes in creating pieces out of people's last names. Pieces can be powder-coated with different colors as well as painted. The powder coat is baked on and is expected to last longer. Some powder coats even simulate age and rust.
With a partner he also constructed a corn-burning stove and hopes to burn a bushel a day on average to heat his home and workshop this winter.
Hamson said he hopes to do life-size scenes of early Americana in Cushing amid a pick-your-own pumpkin patch. Perhaps an elk or a stagecoach pulled by running horses.
"There are so many things I have in my head that I want to build," he said looking at the open grassy area near his workshop. "It's just finding the time to do it."
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