Minnesota farmer-turned-artist to sell scrap metal art

Kristine Goodrich
The Free Press
This May 23, 2018 photo shows a ram, made from unusually curled scraps of metal found in a scrap yard by artist Dick Sonnek in Mapleton, Minn. The horns originally were tow rings on a truck.

MAPLETON, MN - Visitors to Dick Sonnek's farm on the Maple River find the usual roosters, horses and pigs.

But his nearly century-old farmhouse also is surrounded by moose, dinosaurs, trumpet-playing frogs and many other unexpected creatures.

Each critter was made by hand by Sonnek from rusted recycled metal.

"It's good therapy," the rural Mapleton man said of his metal work.

After more than 30 years of transforming scraps into art, the 83-year-old is auctioning off most of his creations, The Free Press reported.

Sonnek mostly creates fauna, but he also is at times inspired to fabricate flora, people, and other objects.

Some of his works are small enough for a buyer to put on a bookshelf or in an urban garden and cost less than $100. Sonnek travels to art fairs and craft shows selling those, although the octogenarian doesn't get out to as many as he once did.

In his May 23, 2018 photo, artist Dick Sonnek, of Mapleton, Minn., talks about his largest work, a horse that stands about 10 feet tall. It took 54 hours to make the creature from old tractor parts and other scrapped equipment.

Other sculptures require a larger financial investment and a visit to Sonnek's farm with a pickup or a large trailer to take home.

The farmer-turned-artist's largest creation is a horse that stands over 10 feet tall. The stallion took him 54 hours to build, primarily from old farm machinery and vehicle parts.

Sonnek scours junkyards and farm auctions for bits of metal to give a new life.

Often a single piece of found metal becomes his inspiration. A large propane tank was transformed into Humpty Dumpty, the spring from a rail car became the body of a pig, the gas tank from a Kowasaki motorcycle became the body of a rooster, and a tractor seat became the feathers of a turkey, to name just a few.

"The ideas just come to me," Sonnek said.

Choosing his favorite creation would be as impossible as choosing a favorite child, he said.

His best-seller is a moose-shaped garden hose holder that he cuts and assembles from sheets of metal. He also makes large moose sculptures so realistic that one lost an antler in a fight with a real deer.

A part here and there is purchased new because he can't find something recycled that does the trick. He dips the new components in a secret solution to expedite rusting and lets them age outside for a while until they match the rest of the piece.

In this May 23, 2018 photo, artist Dick Sonnek uses a plasma cutter to engrave his signature into a piece of metal in his metal shop south of Mapleton, Minn.

A trip after he retired from farming in 1984 inspired his second act as a self-taught artist. On a visit to a metal artist studio in Texas he was enamored by the plasma cutter, a device that uses a jet of hot plasma to cut metal.

Now his workshop is filled with an eclectic mix of new and antique tools ranging from a plasma cutter to a coal forge.

The aging artist said he plans to continue creating "as long as my health permits."

But he's ready to thin out what has become a sculpture gallery and his own junkyard in the gardens around his home and in his former milking barn and what once was a cow pasture.

He's holding an auction June 9 to sell hundreds of his pieces of art.

Not all of his sculpture garden will be for sale. Some sentimental pieces are staying in the family, including a tribute to the artist's late wife and a bench that features silhouettes he drew and cut of two of his granddaughters.

The aforementioned bench also is made from cast iron cresting salvaged from the roof of the old Good Thunder roof.

Auction shoppers can buy leftover cresting to make a project of their own.

Sonnek is selling much of his scrap collection as well as antiques he's collected over the years. Those items include old farm machinery, a circa 1920 REO Speed Wagon, milk cans and a dozen barn cupolas.