December 12, 2002
Near Conway, Mo., alongside Interstate 44, lighted reminders of Christmas greet travelers year-round. Conway is home to the Den of Metal Arts, where owner Richard Kerb; his wife, Judy; their son, Ron; and three employees hand-fabricate and sell metal silhouettes depicting holiday signs, scenes, and characters; military, western, and sports themes; animals; and custom figures.
Decorating the aircraft carrier was a major undertaking. The lighted silhouettes that adorn the ship include a 42-foot long F-18 fighter jet - with Rudolph in the open canopy - pulling Santa's sleigh. Other figures include a manger scene, three Clydesdales pulling a stagecoach, a helicopter, a sign proclaiming "Season Greetings from USS Harry S Truman," and 6-foot anchors on each side of the display. When the ship is in port, the lighted display draws thousands of sightseers throughout the holidays.
>Kerb was introduced to welding in his high school metal shop class, but his real training began in 1963 during a military stint in Korea as a mechanic. His experience at that time focused on shielded metal arc welding. Back in the states in 1968, he bought a torch and began "playing around" with brass overlay and welding sculptures, opening the Den of Metal Arts in 1969 in Missouri.
The business soon expanded to include a wrought iron division specializing in custom ironworks, such as gates, driveway entrance arch signs, cemetery signs, spiral stairs, railings, columns, fences, security bars, plant stands, garden trellises, arbors, and baker racks - all made by hand.
In 1987 Kerb moved the business to its current location in Conway and began making silhouettes shortly thereafter. In the first year he designed and sold 80 silhouettes. Since then business has expanded seven times and now boasts 600 items, 300 of which are on display and visible from the interstate. "We put up two lighted witches and a lighted pumpkin one Halloween for the truck drivers to see and gradually added more until we reached 300 items, over 360 ft. of lighted display," Kerb said.
Kerb works from a line drawing, deciding scale and then transferring the drawing to metal. He cuts out and bends the pieces, welds them together, grinds the edges as necessary, and then primes and paints them. The entire operation is done by hand.
In addition to the 600 different stock items, which include several animated pieces, he produces about 60 custom silhouettes each year. His most ambitious custom creation to date—aside from the USS Harry S Truman project—is a family of 3-D blue herons, the largest of which is 17 ft. tall with a 20-ft. wingb and weighing 1,100 lbs. The chicks are 10 ft. tall with 16-ft. wingbs.
Other than his billboards along I-44, Kerb doesn't need to do much advertising. Ninety-five percent of his business comes from people who see the lighted displays. His art sells itself.
When asked if he has a favorite design among his creations, Kerb replied, "No, I like them all the same." His answer is similar to a parent's when asked if he or she has a favorite child. He has a special attachment to each carefully handcrafted item. Each is unique and each bears his personal touch.