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Metal man: Yard art welder sets up shop on Milton’s Merchant Row

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Neil Johnson
June 15, 2013

— Yard art welder John Dorn smiled as he showed a photo of a brown and white English pointer dog.

A woman, the owner of the dog, had brought the photo to Dorn’s welding studio on Merchant Row in Milton. She wanted Dorn to create a welded dog just like the photo that shows the pointer at attention, its paw stabbing toward a bird somewhere in the bush.

Dorn, 58, Milton, stood in front of a mostly finished metal dog that mimicked the photo almost perfectly. One leg, spot-welded from cold rolled steel, pointed. Its body was made from two LP tanks welded together.

“Turned out pretty good, didn’t it? I mean, how realistic can you make some LP tanks look? In my book, pretty damn realistic,” Dorn said.

In the last several months, Dorn has turned the front room of a former automotive garage at 28 Merchant Row into a showroom for his business, Wisconsin Wrought Iron. His focus: welded yard ornaments.

There are giant daisies nearly as tall as a man. Their thin metal petals spread three feet from a center made from a gas canister cap the size of a dinner plate.

“They’re just funky,” Dorn said, pacing his showroom with a brimming cup of coffee.

Other creations in the showroom:

Little pigs, their bodies made of used propane tanks.

Herons and cranes with long rebar legs.

Blustering peacocks with tail feathers spread wide.

Waist-high coneflowers.

Squirrel-feeder cornstalks that hold corn on spikes.

Higher-end creations by Dorn include welded benches with backs made from antique, wrought-iron bed headboards.

Each of Dorn’s babies is priced in chalk on the showroom floor. Prices range from $29 to $250, depending on the size and complexity of the piece.

Dorn, a career welder and machinist, quit school at age 16 to work in welding. He has joined metal using spark and rod ever since.

He opened his own yard art welding business 14 years ago after making a few welded metal ornaments for friends. He found out people were willing to pay money for his work.

He does custom work, such as the pointer dog, and comes up with his own designs, making drawings at the shop. The process is casual, but the work goes on and on.

“You always have a couple of beers and make a plan. Then you get to work. If it takes all night, that’s what it takes,” Dorn said.

Early on, he never cottoned to the idea of his creations being art.

In fact, he once got kicked out of a local juried art show because an organizer felt he’d “mass-produced” his welded work. The festival refused to refund his entry fee. It was Dorn’s first and last juried art show.

“That deal soured me a little bit on labeling what I do as art. Back then, I didn’t want to be called an artist. I hated the idea,” Dorn said.

Dorn has worked continuously as a welder of yard ornaments, except for a 15-month hiatus three years ago after he broke his neck falling out of a truck. Dorn paralyzed his left arm in the accident, and it took him months to regain use of it.

Once his arm was strong enough to bend metal, he again resumed work creating his giant steel flowers and little gas-tank-bellied pigs.

Dorn decided last year to move into the former automotive garage after the death of the last tenant, a mechanic. The garage has long been a home for automotive businesses; it once housed Dickoff Chevrolet, a car dealership, and has been home to several local auto mechanics through the years.

Dorn likes the old garage because it’s got a natural setup as a showroom for Dorn’s yard art. The garage’s double doors, which open all the way, face the street. Lake Koshkonong and Clear Lake vacationers who hit up shops along Merchant Row can see all of Dorn’s creations as they walk by.

Dorn does welding in the rear rooms, sometimes working all night on his creations. In tourist season, the shop is open seven days a week.

His hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but he often stays open until dusk because he hates the idea of a vacationing customer walking by his shop and not being able to come in.

“In the summer months, you’ve gotta go for the gusto. People will stop in at any time, and you’ve got to be there,” Dorn said.

The hard work has made the last decade-and-a-half a blur for Dorn.

“I can’t believe how fast 14 years have come and gone,” he said.

If it was regular metal fabrication, he figures he would have been burned out on the work after more than a decade. But as it is, Dorn has come to view what he does less and less as work, and more and more as a playground for his imagination.

“It’s just fun,” he said.

Maybe what he does is art after all—and maybe he is an artist. It’s an idea Dorn said he’s starting to warm up to.

“You know, I guess maybe I’ve got to accept what I am,” he said.



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