MARBLE, Wash. – Growing up in rural Stevens County just south of the Canadian border, David Fitzgerald was running the family sawmill operation by 14 and helping neighbors build their homes.
“My grandpa had an old railroad-tie sawmill and taught my dad and me.
“We’d saw from May through September, making everything from dimensional lumber to 8-by-12-inch beams with a hand-hewed look.”
Not surprisingly, Fitzgerald envisioned a career either in milling or construction.
Then he discovered his artistic side, and has built a reputation for imbuing metal with lifelike characteristics, whether the subject is flora or fauna.
Fitzgerald will show his work at Colville’s annual Rendezvous Days celebration Friday through Sunday.
During a recent interview, he discussed toxic fumes, fish scales and maintaining balance between work and family.
S-R: When did you first work with metal?
Fitzgerald: I started welding at 14, partly because our sawmill was always breaking down. My dad graduated top of his Army class as a certified welder, so he taught me a lot.
S-R: Where did you go to high school?
Fitzgerald: From 14 on, I was home-schooled. And everything I did gave me the skills to do what I do now. Running the sawmill pretty much by myself, I had to deal with customers, place orders, scheduling – the whole nine yards.
S-R: Who bought your wood products?
Fitzgerald: About 40 homes were being built here, so I put together lumber packages for lots of different homes.
S-R: Did you have any formal vocational training after age 14?
Fitzgerald: I did a small, two-year local program called Salt Institute when I was 19 and 20 that touched on everything from canning and cooking to construction.
S-R: Sort of a back-to-the-land academy?
Fitzgerald: It really was. There are a lot of home-schooled kids in this area, and it was a great way to transition into adulthood.
S-R: Do you recall the first time you noticed metal employed as an art medium?
Fitzgerald: In the late ’90s, when I was 19 or 20, Colville started getting metal art on their lampposts. My dad saw a talent in me and bought me a $1,200 plasma cutter. Pretty soon I started making knickknacks, coat racks and gifts, and I thought, “Man, why couldn’t I make a living at this?” So I switched from black iron to three-dimensional blued and brushed steel artwork, and I’ve been at it ever since.
S-R: How long did it take for your art business to gain traction?
Fitzgerald: Within four years I had my feet underneath me, and sales has grown slowly but steadily ever since as I get my name out there.
S-R: Did the recession affect your livelihood?
Fitzgerald: I lucked out, because I got my biggest commission in ’08 – a giant stainless-steel gate for a Texas developer – just as the economy tanked. That took over 700 hours and helped carry me through.
S-R: Describe some other commissions?
Fitzgerald: I’ve made everything from a 5-foot-tall family crest to 31 handmade broadswords presented during young men’s rite-of-passage rituals. I also created a 9½-foot riverscape wall sculpture for a hospital waiting room in Colville.
S-R: What skills does your art demand?
Fitzgerald: Everything from drawing to engineering to metalwork – cutting, welding, grinding.
S-R: Is it dangerous?
Fitzgerald: There have been a few accidents. I had a grinder blade blow up in my face and needed seven stitches in my chin. And metal in the eye resulted in many trips to the emergency room.
S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?
Fitzgerald: As long as I’m selling enough artwork that I can pay my bills and provide my three kids with a nice place in which to grow up and learn life skills, I’m happy.
S-R: Have they shown any interest in metalwork?
Fitzgerald: My 9-year-old son definitely has an aptitude for art and has welded things. My 14-year-old has asthma and can’t handle the shop fumes. But he likes working with his hands and helps my brother-in-law with his thriving hydrosol distillery business, making ingredients for everything from cleaning and beauty products to medicines.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Fitzgerald: The challenge of making something I’ve never seen made before. Recently, a guy asked me to make a 5½-foot sturgeon to go on a pot rack that hangs over his kitchen island.
S-R: Are you backlogged?
Fitzgerald: I’m two months out right now.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Fitzgerald: Definitely summer, because of craft fairs and people seeing my art in galleries and restaurants.
S-R: What’s a typical workday?
Fitzgerald: I try to get into the shop at 7:30 or 8 in the morning, and wrap up by 5 or 5:30 Monday through Friday. I usually work half-days on Saturday.
S-R: What do you figure your time is worth?
Fitzgerald: (long pause) I’d like to make $40 or $50 an hour. But, realistically, I only make around $20. Being able to live so frugally here is what has allowed me to stay in business.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Fitzgerald: The flexibility. If I want to take my wife and kids somewhere on the weekend, I can work extra hours early in the week and take Friday off.
S-R: What do you like least?
Fitzgerald: Knowing I’m exposed to a lot of toxic fumes.
S-R: What’s been the biggest surprise?
Fitzgerald: Seeing myself headed toward a career in the sawmill or construction, then turning almost 180 degrees and building a business centered on artwork.
S-R: Living and working as you do in a remote area, what does it take to succeed?
Fitzgerald: Exposure is important, and the internet plays an increasingly big role in that. I also rely on word-of-mouth and do four or five art shows a year, including Spokane’s annual Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show in the spring.
S-R: Anything else?
Fitzgerald: Discipline – staying on top of orders and getting them done on time. People skills, so I can work well with clients. And being comfortable working alone.
S-R: What is your niche among metal artists?
Fitzgerald: Most of what I see at shows is cut CNC (a computerized method) and flat. People appreciate how lifelike my art is – the hammered scales of a fish, or the texture of my trees.
S-R: When you go to shows, what do people ask you?
Fitzgerald: They’re fascinated by how I create different colors on the metal. I don’t use pigments – just heat.
S-R: Do you have any hobbies?
Fitzgerald: I enjoy motorsports. Every year, we spend one week at Juniper Dunes park near the Tri-Cities, riding four-wheelers, dirt bikes, side-by-sides and dune buggies.
S-R: How do you relax?
Fitzgerald: I knock off early and take the kids down to the (Columbia) river for a swim.
S-R: Do you have a bucket list?
Fitzgerald: Hmmm … . It would probably be good for me to sit down and write those things out. I’ve just been so focused on pursuing my art career.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.
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