Artist’s unwavering spirit leads to unique sculptures, contentment
May 9, 2012
Kay Minto has a lot in common with the lava that she welds to make sculptures. The rocks, after all, are a product of a Mother Nature temper tantrum. Minto has been through her fair share of natural disasters, too, but all roads have led to a life that she says she wouldn’t change, and an art career that is as unique as the rocks she welds on.
Whether she realizes it or not, artist Kay Minto has a lot in common with the lava that she welds to make poetic, comedic, or thought-provoking sculptures.
The rocks, a product of a Mother Nature temper tantrum, are equipped to handle the expansion and contraction of the intense heat from the gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) process that Minto employs. The “Rock Welder,” as she is affectionately called in the Eagleville, Calif., area, has been through her fair share of natural disasters, too, but all roads have led to a life that Minto says she wouldn’t change for the world, and an art career that is as unique as the rocks she welds on.
Minto was drawn immediately to GTAW when she restarted her sculpture career, which took a brief hiatus after she got married, moved to California, and started a family.
“I love welding. Back in my college days we worked with a lot of clay, which is really demanding structurally—you have to be really careful with it. I tried woodworking, and I really respect people who work with wood. It’s really cantankerous. But, oh, the freedom of metal!” Minto exclaimed.
As she began her GTAW journey, Minto had some previous oxyacetylene experience that she gained as an undergraduate art major, which helped expedite the learning process. When she enrolled in a GTAW class at Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif., she was extremely intimidated initially at being the only female in a male-dominated environment. But she was able to shake those insecurities thanks to the guidance of welding instructor John Mulcahy.
“I would go to the booth in the back of the classroom and hide in my helmet. But John stood behind me and was great. I wouldn’t have worked with any other instructor.”
Combining GTAW with lava began as an experiment that started on a whim.
“One day I was walking across campus and I wondered how lava rocks would accept GTAW. I had learned that the hard stones like marble and granite didn’t react well to the expansion and contraction with the heat; they flake. But lava rocks have already been fired by Mother Nature. Lava is more porous, so it handles expansion and contraction well.”
In no time welding on lava became Minto’s signature style. Through trial and error, she learned to weld the rocks using a slightly cold temperature and became expert at drilling holes, pinning, and pegging things in place, learning how to deal with structural issues.
“Unfortunately, all of my beautiful, structurally correct welds are buried underneath texture. I had to learn to develop this texturing process, and I had to break the rules to get what I wanted.”
Just as lava is a byproduct of a violent, explosive, and heat-intensive reaction, many of Minto’s most famous sculptures are the result of a somewhat trying personal journey. In 1992, just as she was ending her 30-year marriage, Minto was diagnosed with breast cancer. She opted out of chemotherapy and radiation treatments after surgery, choosing instead a more holistic healing approach. A week after her surgery she went back in the weld shop to begin her emotional healing process with the help of lava and GTAW.
From Minto’s pain came “Nike of Mastectomy,” a curved rock fitted with a ragged dress with her wings outstretched as if in flight (see Figure 1). After months of work and adding metal drop by drop, Minto completed the sculpture, and with it came a sort of closure to a particularly difficult chapter.
“Finishing the ‘Nike’ for me was a sense of graduation. If I have something in my head and my heart, and I can get it out and it can convey this intense emotion that I have—it was a beginning of a new life. I truly feel that my life began [again]. March 8 is my second birthday—it’s been 20 years that I have been cancer-free.”
Since its completion, “Nike of Mastectomy” has traveled the world and served as a source of inspiration and healing to countless people affected by the disease. It was part of two traveling exhibits, “Healing Legacies” and “Art.Rage.Us,” and at Tulane University; the Glenbow Museum in Alberta, B.C.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Hong Kong, to name a few.
Minto enjoys tackling serious, trying, or painful topics with her art, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like to have a little fun now and again, citing the importance of humor in the healing process.
She made the “Prima Donna” for a friend who enjoys drama and dancing (see Figure 2). The chicken’s beak is pointed toward the sky while it tries to balance on one foot. The entire thing took a few months to assemble, which Minto admits, gets tedious.
“I’m getting a little tired of chickens because of all the scales,” she said with a laugh.
But there’s a moment toward the end of the process that makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s a process up until the last two or three days. When it starts coming together, this little character comes out. That is so much fun. It’s like consciously cooperating with the material. As I work, it starts to assert itself and it becomes stronger. At the very end sometimes I’m as surprised as anyone as to how it turns out.”
Throughout her career, Minto has come to the conclusion that art is more than just a means for the artist to express his or her thoughts and feelings. It can hold just as much meaning for a viewer.
“My ‘Walking the Dog’ piece was shown over at a park in our county last year (see Figure 3). The little kids would come up to the dog—my sons called him Rocky—and kneel down and pet him. He’s just a generic little dog with a collar and a leash. The lava person walking him is as tall as I am. They interact with it because it’s real to them. The reward I get is the last few days of bringing something into being and then seeing people’s reactions when they interact with it.
“Art is a language. It’s not decoration. It communicates something.”