By: Karla Jensen
BDAAA – Beaver Dam, WI
Some men long for Harleys and Hummers. Others for Corvettes and kayaks. When I met metal artist Randy Kurtz, his ambitions were more along the lines of Tool Time’s “Tim the Tool Man.” Along with his dry sense of humor, he had the garage and gadgets to match. All he needed was a sidekick and a philosophical neighbor, and actor Tim Allen could have met his match.
Sitting in Randy’s orderly workshop on his acreage on County Road DE on a cool summer day, I felt like one of the boys along with Randy’s wife Lois. She was clearly one of the boys as well, allowing her husband to lounge in what they both call “his thinking chair.” It is a well-worn barstool, which looks as comfortable as a La-Z-Boy yet one that another man would have retired to the trash heap. His thinking chair is where Randy clearly chews the fat, shoots the breeze, and germinates new ideas from within. All we lacked was a television camera crew and this would have been the perfect setting for one of Tim’s great adventures, only with Randy as the star. He did a fantastic job of explaining his art and his passion for tools and preoccupation with metal without offending the fairer sex sitting across from him.
I quickly learned Randy is a guy who thinks big. So big, in fact, he created a work of art that he could not get out of his oversized, overabundant workshop. With creative dismantling, he gained a better appreciation for the kinds of projects he can undertake and get away with, or assemble in parts. Nothing is off limits and their yard illustrates that in every direction. Talk of designing works of art that attempted to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records did not surprise me once I discovered the depth of his knowledge and motivation, which is based on simply having fun doing what he loves.
Randy began his adventures in creating garden art and sculptures not because he was the best student in art class in high school or the most skilled metallurgist in a large company. No, nothing like that. Instead, he had enjoyed a lawn care business and bartending on the side, when he shared with his wife his heart’s desire for a new gadget. Lois might have been surprised the object of his affection did not have all-wheel drive, a stick shift, paddles, a fiberglass bottom or chiseled handlebars, but she went with it anyway. That gadget was a plasma cutter. A friend at work introduced Randy to this cool new tool and that purchase set him on a course as a man of steel – a course that he or Lois could never have imagined.
Just in case I might not have heard about the mechanics behind a plasma cutter, Randy gently reminded me how this high tech tool works. “It cuts metal with pressurized air and electricity,” he explained. “I buy large sheets of metal from Al-Win Enterprises in Randolph in different gauges and lengths. I use chalk to outline a design I have in mind on large metal sheets and keep a pattern if the first one turns out.” In his garage, we were surrounded by more shapes than Christmas cutouts, from stars, to angels, to houses and landscapes. He has become an expert at freestyle silhouettes of words and shapes with the uncanny ability to unearth tableaus of art within an otherwise flat and lifeless piece of dull metal. “No computer is ever used,” explained Randy, “…the computer is between my ears.”
After almost 18 years on their property, Randy and Lois have not simply made a lovely home for themselves but they have forged several detailed sculpture gardens of one-of-a-kind pieces, small and large, that dot their acreage and obviously attract the attention of any passersby. From quaint to colossal, each piece of art hand cut by Randy and designed by him illustrates the truly remarkable gift he has been given. “This is not a business,” claims Randy matter-of-factly, “It’s just a hobby.” He has given many pieces as gifts. At first, he started giving his work away to friends, family and neighbors. Soon, people asked if his work could be purchased.
It took me a moment to catch onto his sly humor. Poking fun at himself he said, “I guarantee my work. There are no nails or screws that will ever come loose.” He grinned, knowing his work is less complicated than to have those components, and at the same time more complex because of the art the metal becomes when it is completed with his magic touch.
Randy and his art have been showcased nationally in articles in the Farm Show Ag World publication of “Made It Myself ” Ideas, as well as regionally in Inspire Magazine. The Ag World publication has featured a number of his fine larger works including his giant musical wind chime. Its presence struck me like lightening when I saw how ingenious Randy had been in constructing such a work of beauty. In one of his most fine creations, Randy fashioned this chime with pendulums that hang from an old recycled glider frame rescued from the trash. The metal pendulums, shaped like musical instruments, dance when the wind kicks up and chime their happy welcome to the neighborhood. Aluminum pipes ranging from 23 to 63 inches hang as gracefully as swans in a pool of clear water. Metal musical notes, 16 to be exact, skip across the top in a stanza of a favorite hymn. I have encouraged Randy to submit this as a showpiece in the “Music in Art” Exhibit this summer at The Seippel Arts Center.
Another larger-than-life piece was a custom 15-foot tall metal arch, which is anything but ordinary. Like steps on a ladder, this “Welcome Arch” is as good as a neighborly smile or a vigorous handshake, and it contains crossbars where Randy has, by design, perched insets of smaller metal work, from birds to flowers, cats, trees and even a picket fence. The entire piece is as curious as art on the walls we see at BDAAA all the time. One must pause to take in so much intricacy woven into this work. He has another arch in progress in his garage. To that one, he added the words, “Welcome to True Happiness,” which was the title of a sermon he heard at church. He uses the same ingenuity and inspiration other artists see, hear, smell or touch simply by living life in community. Randy’s canvas is the great outdoors and his tools include a welder, a plasma cutter and literally truckloads of metal.
Like the unassuming Clark Kent, Randy Kurtz performs his day job as an employee with the Dodge County Highway Department. He is a heavy equipment operator. Off the clock and at home, he can honestly say he looks forward to the lighter weight tools he can maneuver in his shed. “If the shed doors are open,” Randy says, “I’m here. Come on in.” He or Lois will personally tour you through the maze of artwork, alongside bird houses, silhouettes of people and animals, plant hangers and props, and the vast array of items on display including a tree with 43 gazing balls.
I quickly realized Randy has hit a nerve. The popularity of garden art and outdoor sculptures is evident everywhere. Outside boutiques and shops, down aisles in our chain stores, in our cul-de-sacs and around the farm, and often within BDAAA’s summer Secret Garden Tour, of which The Kurtz’s was a special featured garden in 2013. I loved walking among the illuminated solar lights, recycled bicycle parts and especially getting to sit across from Randy in his thinking chair, where ideas roll as freely as marbles, and patterns for new metal sculptures flock like birds and later, softly land in their yard. As proficiently as a meat cutter in the market, Kurtz makes great use of the prime cuts of metal as well as the scraps.
Randy is very much like his metal sculptures, robust, reliable, solid. He is unpretentious, ordinary as a blue sky and humble. He is Clark Kent like – a dependable, good citizen by day becoming someone else in his workshop – someone inspired and motivated by unseen forces to do good in our community, making our little corner of the world that much better than he found it. Like those comics and movies, this man of steel has his own doting Lois who supports his art wholeheartedly. I do not know if he is faster than a speeding bullet, but Lois claims he can produce new material in a flash. Is he more powerful than a locomotive? With ingenuity and tools at his disposal, he very well could be. I for one enjoy living in a universe with artists like Randy because it is simply a much more beautiful world.