Body-and-paint man trades sander, airbrush for forge, hammers, torch
May 9, 2012
Manuel Sarmiento went to a vocational school to learn to be a fender-and-body technician and to learn to paint cars. Fooling around with a plasma cutter one day, he cut out the shape of a hand and took it home to his wife. She loved it and encouraged him to experiment more. Years later he was successful enough as an artist that he quit his full-time job, and today his artwork supports him and his family.
When is a car not a car? When it’s a work of art. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Lotuses occupy the high end, but many American muscle cars are pleasing to the eye too. No car show would be complete without plenty of vintage Corvette®s, Barracuda®s, Mustang®s, and Camaro®s.
Manuel Sarmiento spent quite a few years working on these types of cars. After graduating high school and attending a community college to learn how to do autobody repair and high-end painting, he was recruited by Krause Brothers, a company that specializes in restoring exotic and rare cars for a niche clientele. For years Sarmiento spent his workday in this environment, surrounded by the most eye-catching vehicles ever created by automotive designers.
It all changed when Sarmiento cut out the shape of a hand while experimenting with a plasma cutter. He didn’t think it was anything special, but he took it home and showed it to his wife. She loved it, and before long she was asking Sarmiento to make other pieces. His experiment turned into a hobby, and Sarmiento toyed with the idea of pursuing art full-time. Eventually his wife encouraged him to follow his dream.
He started by acquiring some equipment, a forge and some hammers, and set up a shop in his garage. His early pieces were both artistic and functional, such as a metal-framed bed with curving, asymmetric posts and rails, and artistic, decorative trellises.
Sarmiento’s artwork blossomed, and eventually he realized he had to give up his auto restoration job to make a go of it. While he already had considered himself fortunate to have the means and the time to pursue his passion, he hit a home run when he landed a part-time job at Central Steel & Supply. In addition to a steady income, the job gave him access to scrap steel, a discount on purchases of new steel, and a lot of latitude; his new employer understood that Sarmiento’s artwork came first and allowed him to set his own schedule.
Regrettably, the steel yard was a victim of the 2008-2009 recession, but by that time Sarmiento had established himself as an artist and has been able to support his family solely on his artist income. He acknowledges that it’s not always easy, but when inspiration strikes, he has the drive to work into the wee hours to finish a project.
The upside is that some clients love his work and, after buying one piece, come back for more.
“Some people have 10 of my pieces,” he said.
Sarmiento doesn’t take all the credit for his career. Far from it. His interest in art developed at a young age; both of his parents enjoyed sketching, and it rubbed off on Manuel. Many years later his wife encouraged him to start working in metals. She also kicks around ideas with him, and on occasion Sarmiento and his wife take their three daughters on a car trip to Austin or over to Louisiana to look for inspiration. His daughters also have shown a flair for art. He credits them with providing ideas that have appeared in some of his work.
Another person who had a big impact on Sarmiento’s life was fellow artist Greg Davidson. A perpetual source of ideas and suggestions, he taught Sarmiento a lot about blacksmithing and suggested exploring other media, such as concrete and fiberglass. They didn’t just work side-by-side, they occasionally collaborated on large sculptures. Davidson passed away some time ago, but Sarmiento continues on, and in fact generates new ideas in the way Davidson once did.
“I have been applying acids and sometimes weed killers, which have chemicals that cause steel to rust fairly quickly,” Sarmiento said. “They add some interesting colors.”