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Welding, wildlife shape Nikiski metal artist

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KENAI, Alaska — No pencil.

Not a paintbrush.

Never an eraser.

When Pat Teakell taps the right side of his brain, his most effective artistic instruments are the ones he's always known.

The 35-year-old oil field pipe welder's hands are best suited for his DeWalt 4-and-a-half inch angle grinder and his torch.

His canvas? Steel covered in mill scale.

His medium? Friction and flame.

His art? Truly unique.

Standing in his Nikiski garage, Teakell peers through his safety glasses at the project in front of him — a close up sketch of a wolf's gaze. He flips the switch bringing the grinder buzzing to life and leans in toward the rectangular piece of steel in front of him.

"You've got to use what you already know," he said.

Teakell's art is what he knows — wildlife and welding.

When he touches the grinder to the steel, he removes the dark covering called mill scale exposing the shiny, vulnerable, untreated steel below. Instead of shading in shadows, he is carving out highlights.

Each stroke of the grinder is forever. There's no way to take it back. No eraser. It's the frustration and the thrill, he said.

It's about feel.

"It's a one shot deal," he said.

Sparks fly as he steadies the electric yellow instrument in hand. The strokes aren't perfect — the grinder is always changing and on closer look, lines are composed of smaller individual scratches and nicks made by whatever texture the interchangeable head holds.

Some smooth, some rough and there's mostly always a degree of uncontrollability, he said.

Details are tough. It's like "planting flowers with a back hoe," or "doing surgery with a butcher knife," he said.

His grinder skips and bounces along the steel. His whole body moves with the motion of the stroke.

"It's trial and error — there's no right way to do this because no one else is doing it," he said.

The New Mexico native started welding and working with metal in high school. In shop class he took easily to ornamental iron work and fell in love.

He soon started his own side business where he worked through a lot of metal shaping arts, creating cut outs and silhouettes of cowboys, Native Americans and western symbols like Kokopelli.

Art and industry were tied together from the start with Teakell.

While the majority of people live in either society's technical camp or its artistic camp — are right brained or left brained, classical or romantic — Teakell contends he's both.

He's learned to look for the shapes and lines instead of the object of the art. He can slip into a different state of mind — live wholly in the right brain's creativity while still operating equipment meant for the left brain's technical, logistical strengths.

"When the two collide and you have structure in the creativity, it's a really nice mix," he said.

But the right side of the brain is a muscle, he said, and the more he flexes it the stronger it gets.

Many years ago at Clovis Community College in eastern New Mexico, Teakell found a mentor in local art instructor Bruce Defoor who still gives him advice on his work.

It was under Defoor's guidance Teakell started to think about the way he sketches — drawing only what he sees and not what he thinks is there.

In his current work he calls grinder sketches, he likes to play to the strengths of the grinding wheel. He's often happier with a piece when it feels more like a sketch, including only the most important details.

"I found that if I try to get too much detail, it takes away from the piece because I'm using such a large, blunt instrument," he said.

But the lack of detail doesn't mean a lack of planning.

Back in the shop, Teakell's walls are lined with patterns he's made. The pattern for the wolf piece he was working on Saturday rested nearby. He uses a photo, makes a quick enlarged pattern for accuracy and uses chalk to mark a roadmap for where he'll steer the grinder.

It's hard not to jump right in and start peeling away. Planning and accuracy are both key, he said. Otherwise the emotion of the piece just won't come through.

"I have a completion drive," he said. "I want to get it done and it is hard for me to step back and say, 'Wait a minute, I got that wrong.' But by doing pieces I wasn't as happy with, I learn by looking at them every day and thinking, 'I wish I would have fixed that eye a little bit.'"

In addition to his grinder sketches, Teakell employs many of his work skills on creating cutouts. Various metal salmon also line the walls of his home, some doubling as ornamental coat racks.

On the salmon pieces, he uses flame, heat and oxidation to create colors. The level of heat controls the color — grey-blue is hottest, tan is mild. It's quite a different philosophy from grinding, although the two are equal halves of his technique, he said.

With the wolf piece, Teakell carefully heated the metal to a glowing yellow with speckles of brown to create a pair of piercing eyes.

"Sometimes different steels turn different kinds of colors and you don't know what you are going to get," he said.

He then starts back in with the grinder drawing lines and curves around the eyes with the flow of the animal's snout hair and eyebrows.

Teakell's unique style of grinding and heating metal into art struck him when he was in Wichita visiting family about two years ago, he said. While in a gallery there, he saw an artist use a grinder on a piece of aluminum and coat it with transparent paints in an attempt at abstract impressionism.

"A light went on in my head," he said. "All my life I have been removing this mill scale by grinding swaths as if I were mowing a lawn just to get it off of the steel.

"Why am I not using that shape as part of the work? It was a no-brainer. I wondered why I didn't think of that sooner and it has revolutionized the way I am doing the work."

When Teakell gets off of a 10- or 12-hour day, he sometimes finds it hard to drag himself into the garage to start working with the same tools again. But he said he doesn't feel work mixes with his hobby.

"What I'm doing is so much different at home from work," he said. "Even though I am basically using the same type of tools — the grinder is the same I might use when I am welding pipe — but, no, it is completely different.

"But getting better with one helps me get better with the other somehow."

Teakell said he works up a lot of the salmon pieces when he has time to sell them later and spends a good chunk of time on the grinder sketches. He takes orders sometimes, but he would rather work on his own and sell them later.

"Doing an order really puts some pressure on me because I don't want to disappoint somebody," he said.

Unlike other mediums — painting, drawing or photography — Teakell has to be himself. He must let his right brain take over.

"They'll give me a picture and I'll say, 'Look, I can represent this wolf, but it is going to be a Pat Teakell wolf,'" he said.

He also has to find the sweet spot between doing a piece that will reproduce well with the grinder and flame, a subject he wants to spend his time on and one that will sell.

"When all those things collide, that's the piece I do," he said. "Not all ideas are going to fit that. You know, man, I could do a real good duck-billed platypus, but who cares?"

Local creatures — wolves, bears, salmon and others — are his bread and butter.

"As an outdoorsman, it is a real natural fit," he said. "Alaska is a real natural fit for me."

Information from: Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com