Judy and Lou Hagen: Whimsical smiles from old junk piles

November 29, 2010
Judy Hagen starts the process of painting a flock of red birds. BY RON MACARTHUR

Retired long-distance truckers Judy and Lou Hagen have welded, grinded and painted a niche in the folk-art world.

As sculptors of whimsical metal creations, they have not only found a vocation but also developed a passion for turning rusted scraps of metal into works of art.

They look at old, used and rusted auto, truck, tractor, bicycle parts and tools with a different perspective than the rest of us. We see junk; they see flowers, people, animals, birds and even SpongeBob.

It’s not everyone who could look at a propane gas tank and see a warthog, one of 2nd Time Designs current projects.

Covered in metal shavings from a grinding project, Judy emerges from her cluttered shop. One room is filled with shelves of paint; another with metal pieces and tools; another is a showroom alive with bright colors; and yet another in the labyrinth of rooms is the finishing area with half-painted red birds and hummingbirds.

“It’s a dirty job,” she says. “But it’s a labor of love, and it’s still fun.”

Most days Judy can be found in the shop grinding down metal, using putty to fill in gaps and painting. The first piece she sold was a flower, and flowers continue to be her biggest seller.

Home is along Route 24 in Long Neck where the Hagens have lived since 1979. Since 1999, the landscape of their large front yard has changed. It’s become a tourist stop of sorts for those who are intrigued by their metal art. It’s common for people to stop by to just look.

Spinning flowers, a large dragon, two giraffes, M&M characters, a fisherman and large fish, and SpongeBob bring smiles to those who pass by, but the menagerie is missing one of its prized pieces. Dolly the motorcycle girl, one of the largest pieces the couple has done, is on display pulling a wheelie above the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md.

The couple’s work is also on display at the Blue Ball Dairy Barn Folk Art Museum in Wilmington, the DuPont Nature Center at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve near Milford and the Ward Waterfowl Museum in Salisbury, Md. Fifteen pieces are used to help troubled children see objects from a different point of view at the Children’s Guild in Baltimore.

That ‘ah-ha’ moment

The couple had an “ah-ha” moment while in their big rig. Driving their truck along a road in Georgia in 1999, they saw a piece of crude metal art. “We came home and did some Christmas pieces,” Judy said, and that was the start of 2nd Time Designs. They still have a photograph of the metal art they saw in Georgia.

Judy works in the shop throughout the year with help from her 89-year-old mother, Hazel Keen, who visits from her Morgantown, Pa. home to help with finishing stages. Lou, the welder, works in the shop during the fall and winter.

“I never thought this would be our profession,” Judy said.

The couple has been married 42 years and has one daughter, Sheila, who lives in Durham, N.C.

They retired from trucking in October 2006, when diesel reached $2 a gallon, to devote more time to 2nd Time Designs. Judy participates in some juried shows throughout the year, but she doesn’t push the sale of her work. “It needs to be shown outside to get the full effect of sunlight,” she said. “And you either get our work, or you don’t. We are happy where we are and don’t want to get bigger.”

Nearly 90 percent of her customers are repeat customers; one customer owns 16 pieces.

Scrap metal becomes art

Since many of the couple’s works take hundreds of hours to create, Judy becomes attached to them. In her courtyard are Slutty Sally, who is reclined in a bathtub, and Miss Molly the Mermaid.

The two have rather distinctive attributes. Judy said she saw some old smudge pots on eBay and knew right away what she could use them for.

Smudge pots are round metal objects once used by road crews who burned kerosene in them for warning lights. They have a large nipple-like protrusion at the top to allow flame and smoke to escape.

Judy saw beautiful breasts, and in her mind Sally and Molly were born.

“I guess I do have a different way of looking at things,” she said. She said they look past the metal part to see the art.

Judy and Lou search eBay, approach farmers, and scour junkyards and farm auctions looking for scrap metal. “It’s getting harder and harder to find them because so much plastic and aluminum is being used today,” Judy said.

They have used everything from farming disks and VW shock absorbers to bicycle wheels, radiators, old waffle irons and exhaust pipes in their work.

Transformation a tedious process

Their process is tedious. Transforming a rusted piece of metal into a work art requires time. Even before welding is done, a piece must be scraped, rinsed, sand blasted, grinded, filed and sanded.

Once a piece takes shape, Judy begins the task of applying six coats of paint. She starts with two coats of primer and moves onto two coats of enamel, oil or watercolor paint and finally a protective finish used on cars. Displayed outdoors, pieces have to stand up to the elements.

Some customers prefer the rustic, rusted look, which requires much less work.

They use metal pieces as they are, without bending or manipulating them. Their popular dragonflies are made of rake pieces, drill bits, shock absorbers, pieces of pipe and drywall lathing.

The metal pieces they have stockpiled and hunt down must conform to what they have in mind as one of their creations. “Some people come here with their own ideas that just don’t work. I can’t see them in my mind,” Judy said.

Creating a frog is a continuing challenge. She gets a lot of requests for frogs, but so far can’t seem to find the right metal scraps to create one. “Everything we have done has been by experimentation, and we are always looking for things that will work,” she said.

Although she’s having trouble envisioning a frog, she has her sights set on their biggest project to date – Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. That piece would definitely be one people would stop to look at and grin, and that’s what the Hagens are after: Whimsical smiles from old junk piles.

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