Like many others, Will Allen is a college student with a part-time summer job, but his real passion is being in the midst of his three-year planned launch toward creating – and selling – self-designed steel art sculpture.

Indoor moving piece with balance points. Credit: Abey Hall

Allen’s craft and artwork span purely artistic to functional metalworks. His finished art can be large or small to fit in a yard, home or office. He is particularly drawn to the size and three-dimensional space that metalcraft enables him to work with.

He previously studied the American metals masters and initially followed their designs, but he quickly found his own “voice” and is now building a body of work that reflects how he views the world. Most of his pieces have a balance point that the work revolves around, literally or figuratively.

Allen’s studio is in the two-car garage of his parents’ house in south Evanston. The equipment in the studio reflects the variety of skills needed to create metal structures. A primary tool is his arc welder with shielding gas. The gas helps keep dust out of the welds. There is also a small black box, similar to a kiln and attached to a gas cylinder, where he heats metal until it is red-hot and moldable.

Allen welding with protective gear. Credit: Will Allen

Other pieces of equipment include an anvil, drill press, worktable and paint spray gun. He has an array of hammers and grinders. Finally, there is protective gear that is important to every welder: masks, earplugs, headphones, gloves and a heavy jacket. Protection in metalworking is critical to protect each of the senses. Working with metal is hot, dusty and loud.

The messiest part of the garage has a wide variety of metal inventory and scraps. Allen has made friends with a variety of people from whom he sources metal, including junk collectors, the recycle center and Metal Supermarkets, a small-quantity metal supplier, which supplies the odds and ends he needs. In the early days, the metal he could find would dictate what art he could create, but now with a growing clientele, he can afford to purchase specific metals when needed.

Allen’s sketchbook. Credit: Jean Cunningham

A new metal structure starts with a sketch. Ideas for Allen’s sketches come from his studies and walking around Evanston neighborhoods to generate conceptual and shape ideas. Most of his artwork is kinetic (i.e., has motion elements), so his designs typically include one or two pieces that balance on a pin or a ball.

Metal sculpture with kinetic motion. Credit: Abey Hall

After creating his sketch, Allen selects materials that are strong enough to avoid any warping or bending. After cutting out the shapes, he determines the balance point of the overall work. One way to find the balance point is to work out the math and physics based on the size and weight of the design. But Allen has found a more practical method is to find the balance point using the actual metal pieces that will comprise the work.

Looking back at his sketch with the balance point established, Allen determines if the
proportions are acceptable. If so, he next creates a stick or ball base on which the finished art will sit.

At this point, Allen begins welding the pieces and makes any fine adjustments for balance. With the shapes welded, then he begins the finishing process of grinding edges and cleaning off all rust and grease. Rust is the enemy of the finished work, so this step, while not creative, is crucial for a long-term successful artwork.

He then paints the piece if it is to be installed outdoors. Painting entails lots of taping off and spraying to get clean and crisp edges. After painting for color, Allen clear-coats the work. An indoor creation is waxed to deepen the steel color and to avoid any risk of the rust enemy.

Outdoor sculpture. Credit: Abey Hall

Once finished, an artwork is installed with others in the backyard of his home. This is where customers and other interested parties are able to come and see what is available to purchase or admire. Allen had more than 30 pieces available prior to a recent gallery viewing event.

After a long hot work session in the garage, Allen likes to walk over to Lake Michigan for a dip.

Another appreciated benefit of living in Evanston is the patience of his neighbors when he works and makes noise. Plus, members of the community have supported his art by donating equipment and tools that he would not been able to buy himself during this startup phase of his craft.

This generosity along with a growing number of commissions have opened the door to this emerging artisan. Allen said, “I am in love with sculpture. It makes me feel good and part of the space. It is a combination of reality and scale that I can’t get from other art forms.”

If you would like to see more of Will Allen’s work, visit his website or his Instagram at @billzbuildz.

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.