Bill Schaefer‘s made a lot of big metal stuff over the years. For over a decade he traveled up and down the east coast working for shipyards, armored car factories and fabricating facilities of all sorts. He made tractor trailers and car carriers. Worked on buildings.
And after every long day’s work with metal, he’d come home and do the last thing anyone would expect: he kept welding.
Bill, who says from the time he was eight years old he knew he wanted to be an artist, says that was the “only way to learn.”
“I learned how to weld and I just liked it,” he tells me with a shrug, leaning up against a large wooden work table which, like most of the items in his workshop, he made by hand. “I used to cut all my classes and go weld.” Eventually he dropped out of art school to pursue it full time.
What started as a hands-on quest for specialized technical skills and mastery quickly turned into an everyday job. A perfectionist (and an artist) at heart, making the rough stuff always drove Bill crazy. He wanted to make things look like “a million dollars but people would always be like, ‘We don’t want to pay for a million dollar garbage truck.'”
But he stuck it out for the same reason it drove him nuts: perfection. Bill didn’t want to make just your average metal sculpture. He wanted solid, skillfully constructed, MASSIVE metal sculptures. He figured “this stuff isn’t going to hold together until I learn how to weld better.” So he went out and learned. (He primarily shoots for the 12 to 14 foot range nowadays.)
Ironically, sometimes Bill lived in such small spaces that welding wasn’t really feasible, let alone welding big projects. Luckily, Bill also paints.
Eventually, he felt he’d mastered enough skills to make large scale work “strong enough and safe enough to climb on or whatever” and he set out on his own. Now he tries to make a full time job of it, and when he picks up outside jobs it’s for woodworking, not welding. A well-earned separation of work and play.
When Bill gets an idea for a sculpture in his head, that’s where it lives and breathes until he can make it three dimensional. He wont sketch or plan; the work evolves as technical and aesthetic challenges come up. Sometimes his ideas don’t look the way he imagines them and he likes have the ability to free-think. Some of his pieces can take years to make.
According to Bill, metal is not something you ever truly master. You think you’ve got it and then you try put something together and say “holy cow I screwed that up.” Which for him is the most fascinating thing about it. He’s always trying to do more technical and more complicated things.
He says his sculptures have to look good “from every which way.” Most of his pieces don’t have blatant messages; he says he just want people to experience something outside their everyday lives. He knows he’s succeeded when he’s made something that’s interesting no matter how many times you’ve looked at it.
“From all walks of life people seem to like the work. They might not know what it is, necessarily,” he chuckles, gesturing to some of the pieces tucked into corners of his workshop, all different shapes and sizes. “I’m not always real helpful in telling them what it is even if I do have some sort of plan because I think that they should just experience it on their own.”
Often times people will see things he never thought of and he’ll get to experience his own art in a new way. Just another aspect of the fun: new challenges, new experiences. Every day.
“I just like big, metal stuff.”