Turning Metal into Magic
From ornamental gates to fantastical creatures, Ryan McCallister is shaping the future of Welding.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Carl Schultz
As a senior at the University of Tampa in Florida, sculptor Ryan McCallister had studied ceramics and bronze casting. Then he was introduced to welding. “I immediately fell in love with it. It was everything I ever wanted,” he remembers. “Steel is rigid and it can hold a lot of weight, so you can make all sorts of unusual forms that you could never do with clay. And you can cut and paste. If you mess up, you simply chop it and re-weld. It allows room for error, so you can refine a piece rather than it being ruined and needing to be scrapped, which you can end up doing a lot in ceramics.”
That ability to “fix” his sculptures came in handy last year after a hit-and-run driver damaged a large metal-and-river-rock swimming dragon sculpture that guards the front yard of the artist’s Scottsdale residence. McCallister was able to reconstruct the crushed and contorted gabion-style segments of the Viking-influenced sea monster and reinstall it in its prominent spot near the street, where its serpentine humps, spiked tail, sharp scales and large mouth brimming with pointed steel teeth capture the attention of passersby.
McCallister’s home stands out from the refined yet understated homogeneity of his neighbors’ ranch-style dwellings, thanks to his imaginative touches. A front courtyard is framed with decorative fencing that the artist fabricated in a two-car garage, located in the backyard, that he converted into a workshop. Guests enter through an elaborate trellis complete with fanciful scrollwork, French-style doors with built-in planters designed for flowering climbing vines and a patinated latch in the shape of a snake. Custom gates that lead to the backyard are topped with oversized steel medallions embedded with scarlet stained-glass sunbursts that glow like flames in the setting sun.
Indoors, examples of McCallister’s artwork also take center stage. In the living area, a rectangular billiards light commands attention above the pool table. Slivers of citrus-hued stained glass shimmer in its rusted steel latticework. Across the room, a nickel-plated steel moose that showcases McCallister’s signature gabion frame design rests on a console table. “I use the house as an opportunity to show off my work,” the artist explains.
McCallister purchased the dwelling about six years ago, after he moved to the Valley following a stint in New Jersey, where his desire to work on large projects was stifled by the city’s small spaces. He decided to give the Phoenix area a try after visiting his parents, who had retired to Paradise Valley. “The weather is perfect out here, so I thought, if I’m going to open up any type of studio, it might as well be in Arizona,” he recalls. His home’s main attraction? The spacious garage, which he quickly filled with welding and fabrication equipment that allowed him to start offering his metalworking services to local contractors, designers and homeowners.
Nick Almeida, a longtime friend of McCallister’s, began working with the artist about a year-and-a-half ago, learning how to weld and helping maintain and run the shop. “On the fabrication side, it’s been cool to experience the hands-on approach to construction,” says the former electrical engineer. “And I’m super impressed with all of Ryan’s art pieces. He creates things that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else, such as the dragon. I don’t know if I could ever visualize figures like he does. His start-to-finish process is unique.”
McCallister agrees. “I don’t have a process mapped out; I approach each piece differently,” he notes. He’ll often begin by sketching an outline of the shape on the floor, which he uses as a template to weld together an armature that can stand up. Heavy steel bars are twisted and shaped around the skeleton, starting at a single spot and running up and down the figure, forming tight waves and curlicues. “At no point can you figure out where it starts and stops, which I love,” he remarks. “It creates a seamless effect.”
The armature is then cut out and the framework is filled with river rock. “When I first moved here, I saw a public restroom that had gabion walls, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I immediately decided that I should do something like it,” McCallister recalls.
Jason Catlin met McCallister when the two worked together in the foundry at Cosanti, the Paradise Valley home and design studio of the late visionary architect Paolo Soleri. “My favorite thing that Ryan does is his river rock sculptures. Stone is such an immovable force, but the way he balances it is really delicate,” the jewelry designer says. “Ryan’s genius is where he lets the light in—where he places the stained glass, the negative space, the rock.”
Recently, the pair collaborated on the creation of a towering, arched structure that will showcase two large Cosanti bronze windbell mobiles. A private commission, the piece will be displayed in the front yard of a Paradise Valley home. “This project really highlights what I think is special about Ryan,” Catlin notes. “I came up with the idea for the piece in the middle of the night; I was barely awake. I just scribbled it down on some paper. It doesn’t matter how elementary your communication is with him, he can understand it and run with it in a really constructive way. Ryan was able to take my raw, creative inspiration and turn it into something that’s structurally sound and gorgeous.”
While McCallister would eventually love to focus only on his sculpture, he continues to push metal’s limits, elevating commonplace decor elements into eye-catching works of art. “I try to marry my artistic style into items that are everyday and functional,” he says. “I want people to be wowed.”
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