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Jack Barker and a pipe-smoking pal.
Jack Barker and pipe-smoking pal.

Jack Barker's Metal Menagerie (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Essex, Illinois

Note: Jack Barker passed away on May 16, 2012 at age 78, and his sculptures have been sold and/or dispersed. Our visit report was written in 2011.

Chrome Indian chief.

Jack Barker ran a gas station and auto body shop for 25 years. Then he closed it and got a job at a nearby nuclear plant. Then the plant laid him off just before his 60th birthday. "I got nuked," he said.

But Jack still had his old shop, and his tools, and lots of leftover car bumpers. He started hammering and welding the metal into birds, goats, Indians. "It just came out of nowhere," said Jack, who'd never done anything quite like it before. The sculptures stood on the lawn outside his shop, and he remembered the first time someone stopped their car and asked where the artist was. "I had to look around, because that's the first time anybody ever called me an artist."

That was in 1993. Now the lawn in front of Jack's shop is filled with art: bears, eagles, metal knights, skeletal dinosaurs, clowns, cows. No two are alike, and Jack has no idea how many he's made.

Foam creature.

"I used to buy old cars and rebuild them," he said, explaining his prolonged pep and ability with tools. "But this is a lot more fun because you can drip the paint, screw up the welds, and everything is art."

Jack's multimedia art extends beyond welding scrap metal. He walked us around the property, pointing out a polar bear covered in shredded nylon, a camel in shredded metal, a buffalo in shredded PVC. The hides of a lion and a big pink elephant, which spritzes water from its trunk, are made of spray foam.

Mechanical sculpture.

And he seems to find a use for just about everything eventually. Sculptures are made of old farm machinery, metal bed frames, barbeques, pipes, propane tanks, oil pans. A red devil head with spiky teeth grins near a caveman with Brillo hair. Jesus hangs, crucified, in front of Fred Flintstone's car.

Inside his office, Jack showed us his Hammond electric organ and accordion. He unexpectedly launched into a Wall-of-Sound version of "Deep in My Heart" and the building shook. Jack always has music playing when he works, mostly from his stockpile of 1970s-era stereos. While we were admiring his hand-built busts of Dennis Rodman, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley, Jack popped in an 8-track tape and Elvis crooned "Love Me Tender."

Clutter is everywhere in Jack's machine shop, a real man cave. Walls are lined floor to ceiling with ancient hammers and wrenches; scrap metal litters the ground.

Jack takes a break from sculpting, but he's also taking song requests.
Jack takes a break from sculpting, but he's also taking song requests.

"I gotta have stuff laying around so I can get going," said Jack, picking up a chunk of brown metal and giving it a perfunctory whack. Many of Jack's sculptures began as dogs or horses or dinosaurs, but ended up as something not quite the same; Jack said it's because he improvises with whatever junk is at hand. His unnamed bug creatures and monsters were similarly unplanned and spontaneous births.

Jack's success with his art has given him income in his Golden Years. All of his work is for sale, so travelers may want to bring along a trailer in case they want to take home a souvenir. The shop is only eight miles from Route 66 -- considered an official "off tour" by Mother Road pilgrims -- so Jack's built a big "66" out of wheel rims where tourists can frame their faces for photos. He enjoys visitors, and talking about his art.

"When something just strikes you, you gotta do it," he said, summing up his late-in-life career change. "Don't get discouraged, and don't let people think you're nuts."

Jack Barker's Metal Menagerie

Jack died, sculptures dispersed, auctioned.
Roadside Videos
Jack Barker: Inspiration from Junk

Jack Barker: Inspiration from Junk

Jack Barker showed us some of his junk art sculptures and talked about his ideas.Go to video

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