Art Schmaltz recently got a phone call from a friend who works in the athletic department at Monona Grove High School. She had a stainless steel diving board frame that was headed for the landfill.
"I’ll be there in an hour," Schmaltz told her.
This sort of call isn’t unusual for the artist, 69, who takes discarded metal and bends and welds the forgotten pieces into imaginative forms. He often paints the finished sculptures and displays them in the yards of his neighbors on and around Wingra Drive, a few blocks from the entrance to the Arboretum. The outdoor gallery of about 15 sculptures, plus more in Schmaltz’s own yard nearby, is an eye-catching curiosity.
In one charming piece, an old propane tank doubles as the chubby body of an elephant with antlers added for tusks. A series of lanky birds stand tall on legs of studded T posts, the stakes used to anchor barbed-wire fencing. A few doors down, geometric shapes and odd angles create an abstract form. Schmaltz said many of the ideas for his creations come to him in dreams.
"People will leave interesting pieces of metal they find on my front porch here without telling me where they came from," said Schmaltz, who routinely picks up remnants of old farm equipment and other scraps on his forays into the country. "I’ll wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, look at that! There’s a bucket of junk. Let’s get to it!’"
As one neighbor noted, "you can’t miss" his house. The prolific artist’s Madison home overflows with sculptures in various stages of completion. At any one time, he’ll have 40 metal sculptures in the works, and an additional 40 wood sculptures in progress.
Schmaltz uses a small welder in his driveway — usually during the day when his neighbors are at work — to build his creations. Inside his house is a small woodburning stove where he cooks the metal to get rid of the rust, giving pieces a bronze-like patina. His other passion, wood sculptures, line the walls and mantel of his living room.
The artwork has built goodwill among neighbors while enlivening the front yards of the modest homes, which stand just across the street from Wingra Creek. He’s one of a handful of Madison artists whose work is strongly connected to one area of the city, creating a sense of neighborhood pride in the process.
"I love my neighborhood," Schmaltz said. "I want to liven it up a bit with one of the few skills I have — turning junk into art.
"My goal is to make Wingra Drive the highest concentration of landscape art in any community in Madison. And I think I’m getting pretty close already," he said. "Eat your heart out, Shorewood Hills!"
Schmaltz’s interest in re-imagining castoff metal into new forms has a long history, starting with his childhood on the south side of Chicago.
"My elementary school overlooked U.S. Steel South Works, the huge monstrous expanse of belching sparks, fire, smoke. It was a surreal landscape," he said. "It was a kind of a fire-belching dragon."
The images were both terrifying and inspiring, and sparked his first foray into art. Later, an apprenticeship with a gunsmith in Chicago helped him refine his artistic technique. Designing custom firearms, he worked with hardwoods like cherry, and also learned to fabricate, weld and give patinas to steel.
"I decided guns may be nasty, but it seemed more of an honest work than the art world," he said.
Working the night shift on the railroad while earning his philosophy degree at Northwestern University provided more inspiration, as well as free materials.
"The railroad was great because there was always stuff that would fall off the freight cars and gondola cars," he said. "The boss would say, ‘Hey Archie, get this stuff off the tracks.’
"It didn’t take long to fill up my garage."
He also spent time working in the steel mills. It was dangerous work, and it led him to look beyond the gritty city.
"I decided on a lark that I better have a change of scenery so I took my little Honda motorcycle up to Madison and I promised that someday I would end up living here."
Schmaltz continued to make art while balancing carpentry and remodeling work and teaching, first at a private art school in the south suburbs of Chicago and then at Prairie State College.
He realized his dream of living in Madison in 2000 when he bought a house, moving here from a cabin in Lone Rock, which he still maintains.
In addition to his neighborhood, his sculptures are on display in front of Macha Teahouse on Monroe Street and at UW Space Place. He created a liturgical piece for an outdoor garden at St. Dennis Catholic Church on the east side.
Schmaltz said the sculptures cost an average of $300-$600.
A neighborly tradition
A couple of years ago, Schmaltz participated unofficially in Open Art Studios, an annual event where local artists open up their studios and invite the public to see how and where art is made.
To advertise, he asked some of his neighbors if he could display his sculptures in their yards. He lives on High Street, which is parallel and one block over from busier Wingra Drive. The bulk of the sculptures are located on Wingra Drive between Haywood Drive and Short Street.
"He never came back to get it," said Rita Sager, who ended up with a piece named "Blue Madonna." "People continue to stop and look at it."
"Aren’t they interesting?" said Sager, who is happy to display the work. "All the way down the street."
Louie Olson and his wife, Lisa Imhoff, have exhibited as many as four of Schmaltz’s sculptures in their yard at one time.
"We used to say, ‘We’re next to the guy with the pond in the front yard,’" said Olson, referring to the notorious 20- by 50-foot pond, surrounded by huge barrels, that made a strong impression on the street in the early 2000s. "Now we just say, ‘We’re on the block with all the statues.’"
When the couple sold an earlier Schmaltz sculpture, "Blue Dog Democrat," they earned a small commission. They still miss the sculpture. The artist replaced it with a blue goat.
"To me, it’s more like a musk oxen," Olson said. "But it’s open for interpretation."
A recent addition, a purple sculpture that has both bird- and dragon-like features, flanks their front windows. Olson, a big "Game of Thrones" fan, named it Dracarys, which means "dragonfire" in the High Valyrian language on the HBO series.
"Now it’s a rite of passage if you’re on our block to have a statue," he said. "It’s starting to grow a little bit."
Laurie Robertson moved to the neighborhood in June 2012 with her husband and two children.
They’re well-aware of their home’s former reputation as the pond house, but they don’t plan anything similar. "We’re more into putting in native plants and organic gardening," she said.
After meeting Schmaltz in the spring, they were "happy to oblige" his interest in populating the neighborhood with front yard art.
"We had noticed his yard and always wondered what the story was," she said.
The sculptures "create conversation and neighborhood community," said Robertson, who has two in her yard, a complement to the family’s four brightly painted Adirondack chairs.
One friend who recently moved in to a house around the corner told her "we’ll have to get one, too."
Schmaltz said that it’s been fun to watch his neighbors interact with the art.
"Louie loves when I surprise him," Schmaltz said. "He comes home from work and there are new sculptures in front of his house and he plays around with them."
Olson said he likes moving them around. "Part of it is I have to mow the lawn."
"The sculptures are simple reminders of what can be accomplished with depth of thought, care and common materials," Olson said. "That’s what living in Madison is all about. It’s the character. Otherwise we’re just another block on the street.
"It gives the block a sense of individualism."
Branding a neighborhood
Madison’s public art ranges from permanent installations like "Ripple Effect" at the Goodman Pool and Olbrich Gardens’ Thai Pavilion to penguins marching on frozen Lake Monona or a yarnbombed bus shelter, temporary works of art funded by Blink grants.
The Wingra Drive area sculptures show how an artist’s influence can brand a particular community, said Karin Wolf, Madison’s arts program administrator.
"It’s wonderful that the neighbors have embraced this," she said. "This is placemaking, when the community is able to say ‘This is the artist laureate of our neighborhood.’ He has a role… of expressing something that they value."
"Sid Boyum is our classic Madison example," said Wolf, referring to the large collection of public art on Madison’s east side that includes a kid favorite, the Polar Bear Chair at Circle Park, plus a number of painted cast concrete sculptures along the bike path. Neighbors "worked so hard after he passed away to place them throughout the neighborhood."
Two stork-like birds created by Dr. Evermor, the North Freedom artist who works with discarded metal junk, distinguish several buildings on Paterson Street. The art of Erika Koivunen, who studied with Evermor, is incorporated throughout Madison, but particularly on the near east side, Wolf said, from benches at B.B. Clarke beach to the patio at Madison Sourdough. Koivunen has been commissioned to create the Williamson Street Gateway Sculpture, a large metal tree that will be installed at the west end of the street and will serve as a welcome to the neighborhood.
Historically, the east side has had several artists who have left their mark, Wolf said. Laurel True is an internationally known mosaic artist who "spurred an aesthetic," creating a number of mosaics in the neighborhood including signs for Mother Fool’s, the old Savory Thymes restaurant and the front door of Mona Webb’s Wayhouse of Light. And Sharon Kilfoy has painted murals all over town but is best known for her work on the east side and at Centro Hispano.
"What’s cool about this is that in the public art world, most opportunities for expression are prescriptive," Wolf said. "These other things are really beautiful spontaneous expressions.
"No one’s fitting them in a box. They’re judged by the jury of their community," she said. "It’s a much more soulful form of public art than you often see in commissioned circumstances."
The city offers many opportunities to celebrate its homegrown artists. Right now through Jan. 5, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is holding its Wisconsin Triennial, a show featuring only Wisconsin artists. Twice yearly Gallery Night evenings (which is this Friday) and neighborhood open studios invite the community to connect with its artists.
On Friday, Schmaltz is coordinating a daytime Wingra Creek Sculpture Walk, where he will feature some new work and host a reception at his studio, 1006 High St., that evening. Starting at 7 p.m., Schmaltz, also an accomplished cook, will grill wild game.
"Madison is sophisticated enough to know that artists, in spite of their quirkiness, are a boon to the personality of Madison," Schmaltz said. "What would Madison be if it didn’t have a vibrant art community here?" ￼