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Metal man creates a world of whimsy

Tim O’Leary

Special to the Village News

We storytellers are a nosy sort. We love to poke our noses, and our notebooks, where they do or don’t belong. Come along now, dear readers, as I share my most recent discovery. One cannot spin a story until they have seen, heard or lived one.

This discovery cost me $300, but I made a new friend, I learned a lot and I snared three new treasures for my eclectic art collection.

This may shock some longtime Smallbrook residents who think they have seen every corner of our little piece of paradise. There is a world of whimsy, as well as a fun and articulate tour guide, that awaits you at 530 Minnesota St.

After driving past the place many times on my vehicular meanderings – I have nicknamed my minivan “Horse” – I recently pulled in and parked. I climbed out and was admiring the array of amazing metal art when a pair of eyes peered at me over the top of a tall wooden fence.

I immediately learned that it is the homeowner’s habit to peek over his fence when he hears vehicles park in front of his house. Too many visitors, it seems, have monkeyed around, some with monkey wrenches, near his childlike creations.

And thus I met Ronnie Thiel, a journeyman metal worker and welder who turns scraps of steel, iron, aluminum and other materials into imaginative pieces large and small. As a lover of art, I was captivated. As a lover of people, I was absolutely enchanted.

I am a recovering amateur artist. I have painted several mediocre pieces. I love creating art, not so much for the finished product but for the act of disappearing into a project and losing myself in the process.

But first, as must every ham-handed hack, I should set the scene for you.

The first impression you get comes from the color of Ronnie’s house: pink! Next is the tall chimney which consists of rectangular concrete blocks painted in a checkerboard fashion of every imaginable hue.

There are reds and blues, greens, yellows, oranges, browns, pinks, purples, salmons and so on. There is also a huge wall that is painted the same way. The visitor’s eyes are next captivated by a large, replica WWII fighter-bomber complete with markings, a bomb mount and a propeller.

Ronny painstakingly created the piece to honor uncles who never returned from the Vietnam War.

From there, the guest’s gaze shifts to all sorts of figures, faces, flowers, creatures, robots and masks – many of them swaying like magic in the soft breeze that slips over the hilltop home that Ronnie shares with his wife, children and grandchildren.

I could not resist the urge to buy. I eventually wrote him a check for a metal goat, a buzzard and a grimacing face fashioned out of a shovel, an oil can, various metal bits and a pair of oversize marbles for the eyes.

I did so after he gave me a tour of his scrapyard, his workshop, chicken coop, backyard and goat pen. He calculates that he has amassed about 200 finished pieces scattered about his place that he has priced from $25 to $800.

“I just love it. It makes me happy,” Ronnie said of the joy of creating. “I’m kind of different. I just keep on doing art. It’ll last forever. It’ll outlive me.”

It turns out that the metal shop class captured Ronnie’s attention in high school, where he also learned basic welding. From there, he branched out into high-tech, sophisticated stuff that he parlayed into a 16-year stint building ships for the Navy SEALs and other naval operations.

He is 61 and has lived in Fallbrook for the past 14 years. His early years took him to Oklahoma, where he first dabbled in the metal arts. Imperial Beach was his home for years, close to his National City employer and other welding gigs. Pieces of his Back Yard Metal Art assemblage grace properties around the planet, he said.

But the last few years have been a bit ragged, he said. His left rotator cuff wore out and that repetitive-stress injury required two surgeries and sent him spinning onto disability.

Welding is one of those blue collar trades that pay well, but is hard on the muscles, joints, backs, necks and lungs. I once worked in a shipyard in Orange, Texas. I was a mere laborer when I watched with awe as the welders twisted themselves into pretzels as they breathed toxic fumes bonding metal to metal.

Ronnie has rebounded of late, and he will soon start looking for full- or part-time welding work. But the commute and the high cost of gas will likely result in him seeking work close to home.

And, of course, he will continue to craft his art. He hopes to someday be able to afford a website, which would give him a wider showcase for his creations.

“My passion is welding – putting down a good weld,” he said. “I put a lot of pride into my work.”

Amen, brother. The world would be a better place if everyone did.

So swing by folks when you get a minute. Don’t feel sheepish. Many people stop by to snap pictures and chat, Ronnie said.

“There’s a lot of ugliness in the world,” he mused. “I love that people come by and enjoy what they see. This is where I free my mind …”


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