From sparks to art: Scrap metal artist talks shop
ONAWAY — It may look like a washing machine leg, but he sees an airplane. A refrigerator rack? No, those are giant mosquito wings. And that gas can is obviously the body of a large bumblebee.
When Marvin Dean sets his eyes on scrap metal pieces, he knows what they will become right away. He just sees things differently. Then he gets to work cutting and welding, and creates artwork, big and small.
The Onaway man has been turning scrap metal into art for about two-and-a-half years. He was inspired to try it since his identical twin brother Mark Dean, who lives south of Onaway, had been doing scrap metal art for years. He now does woodturning.
“Most of the time, I’ll see somethin’ and it tells me what it is,” Marvin Dean said.
In addition to scrap metal art, Marvin Dean has painted many wildlife oil paintings that hang on the walls of his country home, where he lives with his wife Roxann and their German Shorthair Pointer, Cooper. Marvin has also carved walking sticks and canes.
Last week, Marvin and Roxann gave a tour of their home, which features many of Marvin’s pieces of artwork, as well as a large collection of Roxann’s antiques.
“It’s a chameleon,” Marvin said, holding up one of his creations that lives on a side table in their home. “It used to be a pair of pliers.”
He pointed to the body of the chameleon, explaining that it’s called “assemblage” when you take “all kinds of stuff” and weld it together to create a piece. The body features parts from a typewriter, cash registers and clocks.
“And then he’s chasin’ that bug,” Marvin said, pointing to a bug on a blade of grass that used to be a cabin nail.
Looking around, one would assume Marvin is constantly working on his art, but he said it only takes him about 2 to 4 hours to complete the smaller projects, or a full 8-hour day to finish the bigger ones.
“I don’t do it all the time,” he said. “Three or four pieces a week.”
Although many pieces adorn their home, many more have found new homes.
“We’ve sold bunches of stuff,” he said. “We ran out of stuff last year.”
Many of the larger pieces are meant to decorate a yard or garden, while the smaller pieces would work well on a desk, cabinet or on a shelf inside the home.
Roxann said the time it takes to complete his projects does not include the time spent searching for materials.
“First, he’s got to go look for parts,” she explained, using the typewriter parts as an example. “That means he has to disassemble one of them old typewriters.”
He uses a wire feed welder to do most of his work.
“People don’t realize how many steps are in the process of making something,” Roxann said.
Marvin makes lightning bugs that light up in your garden because they each have a solar light in their glass body.
“I sat down and figured it out — there’s 149 steps in building that,” he said of the lightning bug.
He also makes and rewires fans into the shape of an airplane so the propeller is the electric fan, and the plane body is made from an old washing machine leg.
In all, he estimates that he’s made at least 150 pieces since he started two-and-a-half years ago.
He regularly uses oil spouts, forks, knives, spoons, blades from shears, chair legs, doorknobs and parts from old sewing machines, gas cans, washers and dryers, refrigerators, automobiles, boats and anything else that catches his eye while he’s at a scrap yard, flea market, or antique store. The local scrap yard workers not only expect him but they hold aside some of the metal parts he normally comes to purchase.
Parts are getting more expensive as they get more scarce, he said.
“That’s an old oil spout,” he said. “I was buying them for two bucks, and they’re running out, so now these are getting to be up to $25 apiece.”
Roxann said that’s because all the new oil cans are plastic, so it’s hard to find the metal ones anymore.
He also makes motorcycles, bicycles, mini tractors, spiders, dinosaurs, snakes, and critters of all kinds. Just ask and he can probably make it.
His largest piece is called “Grand Junk Railroad,” which is a play on the band “Grand Funk Railroad.”
Creating that life-size “metal band” took him a week-and-a-half.
“It is junk,” he said. “I tell you what, though. I go out and walk around the scrap yard and I see somethin’ and I go ‘I know what that is.'”
He added that not only is it recycled art, but that anything he doesn’t use goes right back to the scrap yard, so nothing gets wasted.
Some of Marvin Dean’s one-of-a-kind artwork is currently on display at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. You can also view and purchase his artwork at Onaway Outfitters, where he worked for 21 years before retiring about a year ago. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for his oil painting, he said he never considered it a talent, although his pieces are exquisite in the eyes of his wife and likely anyone who views them.
“People ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ and I say, ‘These are just a bunch of small spots that are different colors,'” he said.