Aug 31, 2023

Missouri metalworkers turn to arts, large metal sculptures as their main gig

The copper and stainless steel sculpture depicts an 18-ft.-long bald eagle grabbing a rattlesnake.

In Augusta, Mo., Ben Boyher and Brian Watson say, everyone knows everyone. That shouldn't come as a surprise, given the small town—known for its spot along the Katy Trail in the heart of the Augusta wine region—has maybe 300 residents.

So when a large metal mallard popped up outside their shop, people noticed.

"There were always buses going by, people driving by, stopping and getting out and [coming] into the shop to talk to us about it," said Watson. "There's not many people who will drive past a [large] mallard and not take a picture with it."

The animal was the brainchild of Boyher and Watson, who both possess varied metalworking backgrounds. With its 23.5-ft. wingspan, the two claim it is the largest mallard structure in America.

In 2021, the two longtime friends shifted their business to metal sculpting full time. It is a scary proposition to make such a shift, the two admitted, but they have no regrets and their shop, Augusta Missouri Metal Arts, has some ambitious projects to show for it.

"It's a hard thing to do, to make a living just out of sculpting, but we’re eking it out and feeling very positive about it right now," Watson said. "We hope the success will continue."

Before the transition, Boyher and Watson were involved primarily in metal roof flashing and ornamental work. Watson moved to Augusta 10 years ago, and his background includes time as a submariner in the U.S. Navy, hot plasma research in Idaho, and homebuilding in New York. Watson reunited with Boyher, who had worked in construction; Boyher also is Watson's wife's cousin. Both Boyher and Watson have construction and carpentry backgrounds.

However, the two expressed interest in metal sculptures. For example, Watson would take unused copper pieces from jobs and start folding and forming them, Boyher said.

With their background in construction and copper, the two made the transition to full-time metal sculpture in small increments.

"We’d test the waters with some of the folks we’d worked [with] before, contractors, customers. We got an overwhelming response from them, so we started to slow down some of the architectural stuff," Boyher said.

(From left) Ben Boyher and Brian Watson, the artists behind Augusta Missouri Metal Arts, shifted to metal arts full time in 2021. Among their large-scale sculptures is a 12-ft.-tall sasquatch. Images: Augusta Missouri Metal Arts

The transition allowed the two to continue their work and fascination with copper.

"It is versatile, it moves," Boyher said of copper. "Once you heat it up, it stretches and moves, and you can change the color of it. [Copper] is resilient to the elements; it doesn't break down. It's just naturally beautiful. You can have it patina naturally and that's pleasing."

Watson and Boyher love working with copper and stainless steel.

"The copper and the stainless steel, they couple well. You put copper with any other metal and it will just destroy it. We learned that from doing waterproofing and working on people's houses," Watson said.

"Whenever we do sculptures out of copper, copper is just the most incredible outdoor cladding because it's totally nonferrous," he added.

The Augusta Missouri Metal Arts shop is small, but it has the tools and equipment they need to work on large projects. This includes custom hand tools they’ve made for forming, bending, punching, cutting, and perforating.

Along with the large metal sculptures, Augusta Missouri Metal Arts can build copper weathervanes, repoussé copper wall panels, custom signs and lettering, furniture, and range hoods.

Years earlier, Watson spent three years on "Heritage," a 12-ft.-tall Martin guitar sculpture made from local repurposed metal. The guitar was such a fan favorite at the Route 66 Cars and Guitars Festival in Kirkwood, Mo., that a local man bought the sculpture and donated it to the city. It is now on display at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

Meanwhile, "Tom's Samsquach" (spelled correctly, according to the duo's website) is a 12-ft.-tall sasquatch made with a wire armature from wine vine starter rods and features plasma-cut, rusty roof tin as its "fur."

The mallard sculpture, "BAM Drake," is now at a private residence. But when it was under construction, they worked on it outside because it didn't fit indoors.

This 23.5-ft.-long mallard is among the large-scale sculptures that have drawn attention to Boyher and Watson. The two claim it is the largest mallard sculpture in America.

The duo also fabricated its wire armature out of vine starter rods. Boyher and Watson used reclaimed roofing from a former local filling station for the duck cladding.

The roofing material provided them with options to give the mallard distinct colors for each body part, such as black, sooted roofing for the tail feathers.

The two researched how to position the bird and ultimately chose it to appear as if it's about to land on water, a pose, Watson argued, that is "really dynamic," "off balance," and demonstrates "some kind of natural movement."

The two followed that up with a sculpture of an eagle and a snake made from copper with a stainless steel armature. The 18-ft.-long bald eagle is depicted snatching a nearly 12-ft.-long rattlesnake. Just as with the mallard, the two researched the positioning of the two to make sure the sculpture looked realistic. The artists used AutoCAD to aid this process, similar to the bird.

Watson described it as a project of "epic proportions" because of the complex design behind the snake, as well as the fact that attaching scales to the snake's body resembled the shingling of a roof.

The sculpture is now on the front yard of a property where the landscaping and sloping "make it look like the snake was basking in the sun and then this eagle got it," Watson said.

The two say they prefer projects like large animals over more abstract items.

"We like to do things that are representative of real things," Watson said. "I don't mind getting a little bit loose and being interpretative with some stuff, but we rarely do things that are like the modern art piece made of a big, curved piece of steel with a ball on top or something. We try to keep it pretty realistic because people appreciate that."