Chicago-area builder of water gardens becomes sculptor
July 12, 2002
Rick Walsh isn't your typical artisan, nor are his works typical welding pieces. But his personal evolution as both an artist and a welder illustrate the innovation and persistence of any successful welding operation.
Rick Walsh doesn't have a degree in landscape architecture, but he builds water gardens. He doesn't have a degree in art, but he sculpts metal. He has no formal training in welding, but welds all his sculptures.
And for years people have been paying him a lot of money to create his water gardens in their back yards. Now they are considering his sculptures to be art and are paying good money to own them.
For him, it's just part of the sculpting of Rick Walsh.
His personal evolution began because, as he put it, "I don't like to be told what to do"—a necessary attitude for all artisans who hope to see their vision become reality.
Walsh grew up in Phoenix, working in his family's golf course construction business. But after serving a term in the Marine Corps after high school, he struck out on his own to build gardens.
While building his gardens, he discovered there was a market for water gardens. Deciding the niche for water gardens was even better in his native Chicago, he moved his operation to Northbrook, an affluent suburb nestled near the Windy City's posh North Shore. Walsh eventually found he needed to introduce metal components into his water garden creations, and that those components needed to be joined.
So he taught himself how to weld by reading books and asking friends lots of questions. When he started a project, he would pick his suppliers' brains about what he needed, then take it home and start cutting and welding.
"I started bending metal to make artificial stones for my gardens," Walsh said. "It's all evolution. One piece leads to another."
His odyssey led him last winter to create a tree and a larger-than-life depiction of Neptune rising out of the sea for the Chicago Flower and Garden Show in March. Neptune required 20 sheets of 4- by 10-foot 11-gauge steel. The idea for the tree grew out of a sign he had made for a local studio, a smaller tree of twisted steel bars and pipe that sprouted next to the door and spread its limbs out over the sidewalk.
In addition to exhibiting at the Chicago show for several years, Walsh has been featured in Chicagoland Gardening Magazine a number of times and has taught seminars on his water garden-building techniques at several venues in the Midwest. He has built his gardens in Indiana and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago.
But none of that is important to Walsh, except that the exposure keeps clients coming his way. He assumes a classic artist's attitude toward his work and people's reactions.
After hearing in general terms that patrons want a tree or a gazebo, he tells them, "You don't get a say in it. When it's done, you'll love it."
Customers let him get away with it because they like what they've seen in his creations. Walsh feels comfortable saying it because he has found that sculpting isn't like building, say, a golf course.
"It's art," he said. "That's the thing that sets me free. It's art." In other words, it's his vision, which you can like or dislike, but you can't say it's wrong. If you don't like it, don't buy it. But if you do like it, it's art, and you can buy it.
Walsh's pieces, especially his trees, are reminiscent of a walk through a stand of cottonwood trees. They are rough and raw, but realistic.
He achieves this look with his tools. He started welding with a small gas metal arc welding (GMAW) outfit, but found it inadequate.
"I wanted to build big things," he said. He eventually moved on to oxyacetylene, which he likes because his studio, a piece of property along a railroad right-of-way, bounded only by the track grade on one side and a fence on the other, has no roof, walls, or floor. In the evolution of Rick Walsh, this work site was logical. It was a place to stockpile materials for water gardens, which are built on-site. But it works fine for Walsh the welder, too. He works there in the coldest or hottest weather. When he says, "I love it!" you sense that he likes to be close to the nature he is trying to re-create.
Because of the austerity of his work space, Walsh likes oxyacetylene: He doesn't have electricity. But he likes what it gives him, too.
"I like acetylene because I like rough edges," he said. "My welds don't have to be pretty."
The athletics of sculpting in steel also appeals to Walsh. When you look at this burly 6-footer with his shaved head, who boxed in high school and in the Marine Corps, you understand what he means. The picture gets clearer when he tells you why he also has developed a liking for shielded metal arc welding (SMAW).
"I like stick," he said. "When I'm hanging from the trunk of my tree and reaching out 3 or 4 feet to finish a weld on one of the branches, it works well because I can hang on with one hand and weld with the other."
Every piece Walsh makes is an original. He's looked into mass-producing some of his more popular pieces, but the idea bores him.
"I don't do two of anything," he said. "It's the most monotonous thing there is." In other words, this is art, not crafts. Still, the need to make a living makes even artists practical, so he will tell you that he is developing a way to produce in quantity. But you get the idea that it is not high on his to-do list.
What is on his mind these days is growth. Though 35 years old, Walsh acknowledged that, as a welder, "I'm an infant at this," but hopes the popularity of his creations will allow him to do more sculpting and less garden building. He believes the skills he must learn and the vision he has yet to discover cannot blossom in a classroom. As he put it, "It happens under the hood."
And Rick Walsh has the dreams that drive all artists. His ultimate goal is to build a 150-foot tree.
"Picture the biggest power line tower you've ever seen," he said. "I want to turn it into a sculpture." He means a tree, of course.
He also wants to build a 40-foot tree for the city of Chicago. "I'd turn it into an event," he said, "a three-month event."And for three months the people of Chicago could observe the creation of a welder.