Fred Conlon. Photo: Brent Rowland
I’m staring at a seven-foot tall skeleton with four arms. As I look closer, I can see that the monstrosity’s ribs are made out of crescent wrenches, its fingers are made from rusty bolts and the lens covering its right eye is actually an old spoon. Fred Conlon, the mad scientist behind this towering creation has a gift for turning discarded tools, military helmets and scrap metal into garden art for those who are tired of plastic gnomes and pink flamingos. He was kind enough to chat with SLUG about his particular brand of heavy metal.
SLUG: Are you from Utah originally?
Conlon: I actually grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I went to school in Iowa for my freshman year of college. Iowa wasn’t for me, so I decided to move someplace a little closer to home, and Utah seemed like a good fit. It’s only about six hours from Steamboat Springs and I could still ski in the winters. I graduated with a degree in communications from the University of Utah.
SLUG: How did you get started as an artist?
Conlon: I started out as a potter. After college, it was my dream to open a pottery shop. I did that for about three years, but we were just scraping by and trying to make ends meet. Plus, I’m kind of a klutz so I ended up breaking pots all the time! I needed something more durable that I could throw around. One day, I made a turtle and set it outside the pottery shop and someone came by and said they wanted to buy it. That got my mind rolling about some different ideas that I had in my head. I started making turtles and ladybugs and it sort of grew from there.
SLUG: What materials do you use in your work?
Conlon: I use real dummy grenades, authentic World War II helmets, shell casings and bombshells. I like to use the military stuff because, like the prophet Isaiah said, the day will come when we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. What better way to fulfill that prophecy than to take something that was once used in combat and reuse it in the garden?
SLUG: What do you enjoy about working with metal?
Conlon: The thing I like most about working with metal is finding interesting pieces to put together. They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s totally true. I’ll go to the junkyard or transmission shop and scrounge around to find some really cool pieces. I don’t know what they’re going to be at first. I have everything organized in five-gallon buckets in the studio, and when I’m ready to make a large piece, I just dump everything out. You kind of have to listen to what the pieces are saying to you! It’s cool to take something that was used in war like an army helmet or something automotive and give it a second life. It’s the ultimate form of recycling.
SLUG: Are there any other mediums that you like to work with?
Conlon: I still have a bit of pottery in my blood so I started doing some new turtle shells out of pottery. I’ve recently started to work with bone, so I have some really neat dinosaur skulls that I’ve been doing for the Utah Museum of Natural History.
SLUG: I’ve noticed the animal skulls! What type of animal did that come from?
Conlon: Chupacabra, actually. They’re kind of hard to come by. I have a tag, so I can get about 10 per year down in Northern Mexico.
SLUG: Any tips on staying inspired?
Conlon: Repetition. When I sit down and make something over and over again, it really helps. It opens the gates of creativity, and ideas start to flow a little bit better. I’m also inspired by meeting different people and seeing different things. The key to good art isn’t to duplicate someone’s work exactly, but to make it your own. If you see something that inspires you, that’s awesome, but it’s important to put your own stamp on it.
SLUG: What are some of the things that have influenced your work?
Conlon: My grandfather was a big influence on me. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor during World War II. He once told me that war moves quickly and peace moves slowly. That made me think of turtles and how they move slowly, which led to me making a turtle out of an old army helmet. My kids are a big influence, too. I have four kids—three girls and a boy. They keep us hopping, and they’re great inspiration. I think this kind of art pushes the boundaries of traditional paintings and what most people would consider art. Plus it has to be affordable for the common man. If all you have in your booth are $3,000 pieces, it’s not going to be affordable for everyone. I have stuff that starts at 20 bucks. When someone sees something that makes them smile and laugh, they want to take a piece of that with them.
SLUG: Where did the “Gnome Be Gone” idea come from?
Conlon: I started making garden art like turtles and bugs. Then I realized that people put some really stupid things in their gardens, and I wanted them to put cool things in their gardens instead. So I came up with the "Gnome Be Gone" to control the gnome population.
Make sure to swing by booth #123 to see Fred’s wide variety of metallic awesomeness or check out sugarpost.com for purchasing and contact information.