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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘One man’s junk’: Idaho artist Shelly Gilmore turns scrap metal into art

By Gabrielle Feliciano For The Spokesman-Review

What you may find in a junkyard, Shelly Gilmore takes and turns into art.

Gilmore, a North Idaho artist, said she calls it scrap metal art. She takes metal others have discarded and uses it as parts for original sculptures, installations, furniture and more.

Nineteen of Gilmore’s works will be on display at Artisans at the Dahmen Barn in Uniontown, Washington, until March 31. The exhibition, titled “I’ll Fly Away,” features metalwork birds, bats and other winged creations.

“I like, ‘One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,’ kind of a theme,” Gilmore said. “And I like the idea that it has value. That it isn’t just in the way waiting for somebody to throw it in the back of a truck and haul it to the scrap yard.”

Gilmore started working with metal not as an artist, but as a welder.

She learned how to weld in grade school from her father, a welder who worked with a crew at a shop on an asphalt plant. Gilmore said her father and his crew taught her how to weld, use tools and more.

She fell in love with the craft. But Gilmore said it was not until her father died in 2007 that she revisited his hobby: metalwork.

“His wife at that time said, ‘What am I gonna do with all your dad’s stuff?’ So I said, ‘You know, I know how to use all that,’ ” Gilmore said. “So I took it and haven’t stopped using it ever since.”

The equipment Gilmore inherited from her father was a wire feed welder, which she said she had never used before.

To learn how to use the welder, Gilmore said, she enrolled in a class at Lewis-Clark State College, where she thought she would learn how to repair tools or handrails. The younger men enrolled in the class with her thought she would just learn how to make yard art.

Gilmore said one thing led to another, and she ended up turning a lawnmower she had into her first work: “Crafty,” a metalwork rooster with a water fountain in his beak. Once she made “Crafty,” Gilmore was hooked on creativity.

“I was a little bit insulted by that, or I conjured up that because I was a woman and quite a bit older than they were that they decided the best I could do was a piece of art, a piece of yard art,” Gilmore said. “But now I’m flattered by it because it’s so much fun.”

Gilmore said she used to find scrap metal at farms, storage sheds, garage sales and more. Now that others know she makes art with it, she gets it through word of mouth.

A piece of scrap metal is what usually inspires Gilmore, she said. When she finds one that reminds her of something, like a bird or lamp, that spurs her creative process.

Gilmore collects scrap metal, some of which she said she cannot bring herself to use.

“Once you use one piece, and you weld it or cut it or something, it’s gone,” Gilmore said. “It isn’t like you can go to Walmart or to the grocery store and buy another farm disk or old broken plow or interesting hubbed wheel. You just can’t go find that again.”

Every piece of scrap metal has a story, Gilmore said. “Barnacle Bill,” a metalwork pelican on display at the Dahmen Barn, incorporates a 1960 Honda seat and a basket junior high students stored their gym clothes in.

Moreover, Gilmore’s works have stories as well. Each work comes with a tag that has a story Gilmore writes about the work, said Julie Hartwig, Dahmen Barn manager and “I’ll Fly Away” curator.

“She always comes up with something fun and different, and it just makes you smile,” Hartwig said. “There’s a bird called ‘Walker’ and his main body part is made with two woks. And so she has a little story about ‘Walker’ and being made with two woks on his (tag).”

Gilmore has been a consignment artist at the Dahmen Barn for years, Hartwig said. The Dahmen Barn exhibits her work annually and carries her products in their shop year-round.

Gilmore said she had worked since fall 2023 getting ready for “I’ll Fly Away.”

“I hope I live long enough to get through all the junk that I’ve got,” Gilmore said.

Gabrielle Feliciano is a senior at Washington State University studying multimedia journalism, as well as the life section editor of WSU’s Daily Evergreen.