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Wauwatosa metal artist follows unconventional path

Welder Gary Kandziora creates giant metal sculptures

Gary Kandziora cleans snow out of the jaws and eye sockets of three dinousaurs he created from scrap steel in front of his Intuitive Sculpture Studio.

Gary Kandziora cleans snow out of the jaws and eye sockets of three dinousaurs he created from scrap steel in front of his Intuitive Sculpture Studio. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Feb. 26, 2013

Breaking stereotypes is nothing new for blue collar welder-turned-artist Gary Kandziora.

After working for various welding businesses and the navy, Kandziora turned his welding talents in an artistic direction in 1992 and has been making giant metal art sculptures ever since.

Humble beginnings

Kandziora's first foray into art was met with less-than approving scrutiny by his third grade teachers.

It was a snowy recess day, forcing him and his classmates to stay inside. He picked up a piece of paper and started drawing.

"I started with a peanut and then I don't know if I was influenced by the Flintstones or something, but it turned into a cave man with a dinosaur and he was performing a bodily function," Kandziora said.

That drawing cost him a day in the principal's office.

Turning his efforts elsewhere, Kandziora took on other, less artistic high school classes. He studied the art of shop and woodworking classes until he dropped out of high school in 11th grade due to bad math grades.

Artistic endeavors weren't on Kandziora's mind when he got his GED and applied to the navy. He was thinking about how he was going to feed himself and learn a trade at the same time.

His time in the navy saw him weld and do fabrication on destroyers. Due to breathing problems, he was eventually put in a canvas shop, where he made awnings for ships headed to the Middle East. He involved himself in a cruder sort of art during his time there, shaping gloves to have a certain digit extended using fiberglass resin.

While in the navy, Kandziora learned how to cut, measure, think outside the box and work with canvas. He credits his time there for giving him the skills and creativity needed later in his artistic endeavors.

Dire, artistic straights

After leaving the navy, Kandziora went straight to a meat packing plant and eventually to welding shops. He worked at Harnischfeger and Caterpillar after buying a home in Caledonia.

Every once in a while, either on break or with his free time, Kandziora's brain would chance on an artistic spark.

Looking at the giant cranes in manufacturing plants, Kandziora said, "I made comments like … 'Think of the crazy art we could make if we could use all this equipment, we could make giant art.'"

The economy didn't treat Kandziora well during his welding career. He and his wife were constantly getting laid off, which eventually cost them their house in Caledonia.

His wife cried when they moved into a low-income Racine neighborhood. They knew that they were slipping backward, but it was the only way for her to go to school while he tried to find employment.

Even after the move, Kandziora couldn't find employment. He was struggling to make ends meet. He would weld a trailer to get firewood from a friend, sell his odds and ends at flea markets and do whatever he could to pay the rent. He was always thinking about what he could make and sell at flea markets in Illinois to eke out an existence.

This continued until a fateful day in 1992, the same year that Jurassic Park was released. A 38-year-old Kandziora was looking through his garage for something to sell when he noticed some spare steel tubes lying about, byproducts of an A-frame he welded together earlier.

"I thought I could make a dinosaur," Kandziora said. "People are crazy about dinosaurs."

He sold that dinosaur for $7.

Kandziora, latching on to an opportunity, went to a junkyard and came back with enough pipes to make 12 dinosaurs. He sold them to a lady at a resale shop and used the money to make even more dinosaurs and winged dragons.

Taking a hodgepodge of monsters, dragons and dinosaurs to the flea market, Kandziora tried his chances.

He sold out in 30 minutes.

Picking up steam

Deciding to take his art a step further, Kandziora got a phone book and circled all the galleries he could. He walked into a curiosity shop called Valerie's Gallery the next day.

Alligator hides, skulls with silver inlays, taxidermy, pictures of the dead in the 1800s, skeletons and a set of fake eyes from an optician loomed out at him.

Valarie, skeptical until she saw his art, picked up all his dinosaurs, dragons and monsters and asked him and his wife to go to flea markets with her.

From there, Kandziora started a whirlwind tour of flea markets, making art every minute he possibly could. He went on to create ancient-looking creatures, gargoyles, skeletons, tribal inspired figures and science fiction pieces.

A woman from Naperville approached him while he was loading his truck after a flea market and asked him to be part of her gallery. He accepted and, in his first ever art show, took best in show out of 100 artists.

Kandziora toured throughout the Midwest, making bigger and better sculptures. He went to art fairs in Florida and even appeared on the Discovery Channel.

The names of his creations varied from a tribal figure named Ert, after his co-worker Burt, to Semi Conductor Emissary, a 7-foot-tall horn-blowing figure riddled with speakers, to Alien Queen Hillbilly Smoker, a more descriptive title.

Labels and titles

Kandziora is notoriously hard to label. He's been called an outsider artist, a contemporary artist and a folk artist.

He was turned away from Intuit Art in Chicago, a studio that specializes in outsider art, because he wasn't outsider enough for them. He wanted to sell his pieces there and was told that he couldn't.

He did, however, find a name for himself in Chicago. He placed an ad in the Chicago Reader for his studio, including phrases like "intuitive, junkyard art" and "self-taught" in it.

During his next Christmas vacation, Kandziora applied to show his work in a gallery in Florida, using the graphic in his ad. After the show, Kandziora got an invoice from the show for Intuitive Sculpture Studios, which came inadvertently from his ad.

Retirement

Two back surgeries and a shoulder surgery forced Kandziora to stop going to flea markets and attending out-of-state shows. He retired from his welding job and has slowed down his welding passion.

A lifetime of welding and heavy lifting have forced Kandziora to take it slow, but he still plans to show his work in galleries around the Milwaukee area. Kandziora is renting out antique shops and formatting his shop to be back-pain friendly. He plans on installing chairs and ventilation systems that will keep him relaxed and healthy while he works on his metallic creations.

Kandziora says he wants children to be encouraged to pursue art from a young age and doesn't know what his life may have been had his first drawing received praise instead of scorn.

"It did look like a really good cave man," he said. "I don't know if it was like third grade or something like that, but they shouldn't have made such a big deal about it. I think kids should be encouraged to do art and stuff like that because it can lead to other things."

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