August 28, 2014
Lou Rodriquez finds out he has a talent for creating metal art and ends up with a fish tale that is easy to believe because people can see the result: a huge metal sturgeon that’s the talk of Port Huron, Mich.
A 1,500-lb. sturgeon on the Great Lakes? Social media sites produce fake pictures. Internet forums catering to Midwestern sportsmen entertain the question, but knowledgeable fishermen know that such a large fish isn’t likely. A fish of that size is the stuff of legend—unless you live in Port Huron, Mich.
In June a giant metal sturgeon (see Figure 1) weighing at least 1,500 lbs. was placed 30 feet from the St. Clair River, sitting almost 6 ft. above the water level along the community’s Blue Water River Walk. Now everyone in town can take a picture of the freshwater monster that didn’t get away.
Lou Rodriquez, a 42-year-old fabricator and welding artist from South Haven, Mich., is responsible for bringing the sturgeon to shore. Rodriquez just used a welding torch instead of a rod to bring it to the public.
Rodriquez has been around manufacturing most of his adult life. He spent the last 11 years working as a metal fabricator, starting off as a welder’s helper.
He had an interest in art, but never really pursued any type of artistic outlet. That is until he got involved with the Ice Breaker Festival about five years ago. The festival, held each January in South Haven, is a contest for ice sculptors.
After participating in that competition, Rodriquez said he was ready for a new challenge. Just about that time the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., was beginning its second year. The annual event welcomes artists at all experience and skill levels to display their creations in downtown Grand Rapids each summer. The public and a panel of expert judges vote for winners in several different categories, and the recognized artists receive cash prizes. In 2014 a grand prize is worth $400,000.
Buoyed by his experiences in ice sculpting, Rodriquez decided to take a chance with a metal sculpture. Nine years of working with a Holland, Mich.-based fab shop, where he dealt with small weldments and ran the plasma torch table, provided him with the skills to help support his burgeoning confidence.
His first entry in the 2010 ArtPrize competition was an 8-ft.-tall winged dragon. The large sculpture grabbed a lot of attention, and the first-time entrant placed in the top 25 out of 1,700 entrants.
“Everyone was impressed with my work and started asking me about other work I had done,” Rodriquez recalled. “It was a real shock that I had that in me.”
For the 2013 ArtPrize competition, Rodriquez built a giant Japanese koi. This caught the eye of people involved with the Blue Water River Walk, who initially wanted to buy the metal fish.
Unfortunately for them, Rodriquez had sold the fish already. However, those same people from Port Huron knew he had the talent to create marine animals from metal, so they asked him for photos of other work he had done. By January 2014, the committee responsible for commissioning the $10,000 project selected Rodriquez. But they didn’t want a koi; they wanted a sturgeon.
After doing some research, Rodriquez said he knew he couldn’t have the tail show as much movement as he had done with the koi. Sturgeons are large, slender fish and do not move like that.
He began with a framework made of mostly 2-in. tube and 4- by 4-in. angles (see Figure 2). Some 4- and 6-in. tubes were also used. Rodriquez said the framework took about two weeks to build.
The sturgeon’s skin—an armorlike exterior that takes the place of scales—is made of 11-gauge A36 steel. He used gas metal arc welding and 0.035-in. welding wire to join the pieces together.
Along the way he kept his benefactors updated with pictures. One of the changes he made toward the end was tilting the head up a bit. He had learned when fabricating the koi that even subtle movements in the structure can make a big difference in trying to present a lifelike piece.
“Moving the head just 8 in. off of the body makes it look so much better than just having the head stick straight out,” he said.
By the end of May, Rodriquez had wrapped up work on the fish at his brother-in-law’s shop, West Michigan Metals in Allegan, Mich. It was timed perfectly for delivery—just a week after the area’s annual Sturgeon Festival.
“In that area, the sturgeon is a sacred fish. The breeding ground is upriver from where the sculpture is,” Rodriquez said. “It’s a big honor that they would entrust me to build something that represents something so important to them.”
The huge sturgeon in Port Huron is not only a symbol of an ancient aquatic giant, but also a testament that Rodriquez can make it as a metal artist, and not be the starving kind.
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