Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney, September, 2004
On my trips to and from San Antonio up I-37 from Corpus Christi, there’s one particular place where I’ve always wanted to stop. I bet you’ve passed it a million times, too, and had the same feeling. I finally took the time to stop, and boy, am I glad I did.
Not only did I make a new friend, but, surprisingly enough, I found an old friend there too.Come prepared to sit a spell when you stop by because the resident artisan, Jerry Kirby and his cat, Chispa, enjoy company. And in between the visiting, you can view Jerry’s unique Texas-style metal artwork.
In the middle of nowhere . . .
Jerry Kirby is one of those talented guys who are almost a jack-of-all-trades. He grew up in Lometa, Texas, which is about halfway between Lampasas and Brady. He did some bronc riding in high school and bull riding during college at Uvalde and even captured an award here and there.
He has worked in the oil fields, is an accountant, an artist and is also a licensed pilot. He grew up with a strong sense of family as evidenced by the photos of his father and grandfather as well as those of his wife, Martha and their four children scatted around the shop. A couple of mounted deer heads are hung on the walls, too, including a 10-point buck he shot when he was eleven years old. His love of Texas and ranching is obvious as you look around his shop.
His shop is actually a 1938 farmhouse that he moved onto its present location about nine years ago. His business, Torchcraft Metal Art, is located about 30 miles south of San Antonio right on I-37 in the middle of nowhere. If you’re coming from the San Antonio area, you need to take exit 109; if you’re coming from the Corpus Christi area, you need to exit at the Floresville/Highway97 turnoff.
Torchcraft Metal Art . . .
The one story white wooden structure is distinguished by the tall arched black iron gate that stands near the highway. Atop the gate are products of Jerry’s works; a cowboy on horseback, a coyote, cactus, and a longhorn steer. The cowboy is holding his hat high as if to beckon you inside.
The farmhouse has been modified only slightly and still has the original wooden floors. On the walls of the front rooms and displayed on many shelves are one hundred and more pieces of Jerry’s art, and most everything is for sale. He also has a workshop area attached to the back of the house where he has a few pieces in different stages of completion.
As I look around the shop, I spied a guest book on a small table. Leafing through the pages, I saw signatures from all over Texas as well as from Mystic, Connecticut, Iowa, Indiana and New Mexico. Jerry told me that through his web site he has sold and shipped his artwork all over the United States. The pieces in his workshop that I saw are bound for California and Georgia.
His pieces are each unique but almost all reflect the style of Texas. All of the art is hand cut with an oxygen/acetylene welding torch from new 3/16 or 1/8 plate steel. Most finished pieces are painted with black rust resistant paint while others, for indoor display, are left unpainted but tempered with the torch’s heat to achieve various hues of gray, blue and red.
Not so many years ago, I had the privilege of working at the Freer Chamber of Commerce. Freer is known for its annual Rattlesnake Round Up. One of Jerry’s pieces that so accurately reflects the brush country of South Texas is a lamp with a rattlesnake made from tempered steel coiled at the base. There was a time when I could not have left the shop without that lamp.
Scorpions and Spanish verbs . . .
Other pieces that caught my eye were the tempered steel scorpion that sits on a table, the branding iron with the double-T of Texas Tech University (alma mater of my sons and daughters in law), the huge marlin and sea gulls wall art, the brass bird cage that appears to be held in the beak of a parrot, fighting cocks and a unicorn.
I also couldn't help but notice the small book titled, Harrap’s Spanish Verbs, on Jerry’s desk, the World War I or II –era shallow metal helmet hanging from the wall and the almost-life size metal silhouette of a boy’s head.
My curiosity got the best of me, and I had to ask Jerry about all these things. He told me that his Spanish language ability always needs a little help. I don’t think it would qualify as a verb, but his cat’s name, Chispa, means spark in Spanish. I guess that’s an apt name for the cat of a talented welder.
As for the metal helmet, Jerry told me that he has done a lot of work for the City of Mission providing artwork for their recently built veteran’s park. The helmet is a reminder of those honored in that park.
The metal silhouette of the boy’s head reminded me of paper silhouettes that were very popular during my childhood. My parents once had an artist do a silhouette of my sisters and me. It was easy to tell one of us from the other just by looking at the profile of our noses. I wonder what ever became of those interesting works of art. Full body silhouettes make up the majority of his work.
An Optical Illusion . . .
Most pieces are 100% steel but a few are enhanced with brass. One of my favorites was a 9” x 14” religious cross made of tempered steel with brass ornamentation. Another steel and brass piece that caught my eye is a wonderful example of Jerry’s talents.
Upon first glance it was conglomeration of brass mounted on a square piece of black steel. But then Jerry had me stand in a certain area of the room and stare at the center of the brass for 15 seconds. I was then told to look at the white door nearby. Sure enough, as Jerry predicted, once I stared at the brass and then looked at the white door, slowly the image within the conglomeration of the brass became crystal clear. The image shown on the white door was the head of Jesus Christ.
Now, we’re not talking miracles here so don’t call the newspaper, but it shows Jerry’s artistic eye. This piece was made based on a picture he saw in a magazine. So steady is Jerry’s hand that he was able to cut and reproduce the jumbled mass perfectly so as to enable the viewer to turn the optical illusion into the head of Jesus Christ.
The tricks of the trade . . .
Back in 1981 or 1982, Jerry noticed as a young welder by the name Homer Mansfield of Uvalde cutting some artwork from steel sheets. So intrigued was Jerry that he had Homer teach him the intricacies of this craft. For several years Jerry perfected the art, and about ten years ago he left oilfield work behind and turned this avocation into his chosen vocation.
In the years since then he has made custom metal artwork in the form of farm and ranch entrance signs, ranch gate art, lamps, hat racks, business card holders, chandeliers, quilt racks, fireplace screens and a variety of wall and shelf art. Samples of most of his work can be see on his web site – www.torchcraft.com. The pieces in his shop and on his web site sell for $30 - $1,100. Custom artwork runs a little higher. An arched entrance sign measuring 16 feet across can run approximately $1,800, for example and take 30 days to create.
An old friend . . .
Jerry’s forte is the custom designed work requested by so many of his customers. His eye for detail and steady hand can turn a photograph into a work of metal art. He has several photo albums in his shop filled with pictures of his custom work and invites all visitors to look through these albums. As I turned the pages admiring his work, imagine my surprise to find a picture of an old friend of mine by the name of Grant Adami, Jr. of Freer.
Grant came from a pioneer ranching family in eastern Webb County. The Adami Ranch is located about 25 miles northwest of Freer on Highway 44. He was born in Laredo in 1915 and passed away in an Alice Hospital in October of 2000. Grant’s family moved to the ranch when he was a young boy, and he lived there until he was called into service during World War II. He served on the island of Corrigidor and was subsequently captured by the Japanese and sent to a Prisoner of War camp in Japan. There he remained for two to three years, long past the end of the war.
Upon his release he returned to the family ranch. In 1950 Grant and his father built a house on the 4,000-acre ranch. Grant and his wife, Elmira, lived on the ranch in this house until their oldest son stared school. At that time they moved into Freer and lived there until his death in 2000. Elmira and Grant had seven children and countless grandchildren plus lots of extended family, including my husband, our sons and myself.
The best of the best . . .
Long past his eightieth birthday, he made the 50 mile around trip to the ranch each day to work the cattle and care for his ranch. When they grew old enough, his sons and grandsons joined him for the cattle round ups and, during the dry years, to burn cactus pear for the cattle to eat. The Adami ranch is home to an abundance of wildlife, and Grant also taught his children and grandchildren to appreciate the ranch through wildlife management. The ranch house is now used as a family hunting lodge.
If you were to look in the dictionary for the definition of the words rancher and gentleman, you would surely find Grant Adamis’ picture there as an illustration of the best of the best.
A few months after Grant died, his son, Grant “Tres” Adami, III, a San Antonio attorney, contacted Jerry Kirby and gave him a photo of Grant walking near the ranch cattle pens, rope in hand. Jerry took that photo and created a 4’ x 4’ metal artwork sign, mounted on an 8’ pole, showing the silhouette of Grant and the words “Adami Ranch – Est. 1878”. That sign now stands near the ranch house that Grant built. The likeness is incredible, and Jerry is to be commended for creating such a special memorial.
Contact Jerry . . .
Jerry also told me about an interesting “town” being built on a ranch in South Texas brush country. He has done some metal art for this ranch including a fireplace screen and an entrance sign. It sounds as if the owners are recreating Lonesome Dove. I’m already making plans for a visit . . .