Big Art of Tom Moran.
Tom Moran welds the face and torch of his version of the Statue of Liberty.

Welded Wonders: Big Art of Tom Moran

Michigan

Tom Moran creates art that's monumental and meant to be seen -- although he, personally, would rather not look at it.

Big Art of Tom Moran.
World's Largest Steering Wheel was almost too large for Onaway's Main Street.

Tom is the owner and founder of Moran Iron Works, which designs and builds everything from turbines to ferry boats. He was born only a half-mile away, in off-the-beaten-track Onaway, Michigan, in 1960. His father was a lumberjack. Tom told us that he was embarrassed to tell his dad that he was interested in art, so he threw his energy into shop class. As a career decision, that turned out to be a good one.

Tom never lost his love of art, and in 1989 he started welding together oversized showstoppers for the town's 4th of July parade, one every year. "It has to be at least as big as a vehicle or it won't have any impact," said Tom of his creations. "And instead of making it out of crepe paper and cardboard, I wanted to make it out of something that would be around for a while." Fortunately for Tom, he had access to tons of steel, and had an entire factory at his disposal.

Big Art of Tom Moran.
One of Tom's earliest creations was Big Gus, the World's Largest Chainsaw.

The sculptures have grown in size and complexity over the years. Tom modestly attributes this to improved technology and factory equipment, and to help from his employees and industrial arts students, rather than any improvement on his part. In fact, Tom refuses to consider himself an artist at all. "I'm just a 'heat and beat' guy," said Tom. One question, he said, that he asks himself when considering a new sculpture, is, "Can I make it look good enough so I'm not embarrassed?"

Big Art of Tom Moran.
Giant head of Gerald Ford, Michigan's favorite President.

Despite Tom's denials, he is very much an artist in at least one sense: he can only see the flaws in his work. "I hate that stuff when I'm done," he told us. "I never want to see them again." For years, Tom would donate his sculptures to charities, or sell them to private collectors -- he even gave several to Da Yoopers -- or melt them down; anything to get them out of sight and out of mind. "Sometimes it's because of the mistakes," Tom told us, "and sometimes it's just because I'm disappointed in myself." Thankfully, Tom's wife Marilyn eventually convinced him to hold onto his art, and in 2015 she oversaw the opening of an outdoor sculpture park in Onaway where Tom's work could find a permanent public home.

Tom told us that he genuinely enjoys the creative process in making his 4th of July sculptures, and that he's happy that people enjoy them, and that he plans to keep on creating them, even if the results leave him unsatisfied. He struck us as a really talented guy in need of some reassurance. So if you find yourself in Onaway admiring its surprising 32-foot-long sturgeon or 70-foot-long aircraft carrier, and you see an older man in a blue work shirt with the name "Tom" embroidered on it, walk over and tell him he did a good job.

Soldier.
"Unknown Soldier" originally had mirrored eyes, but Tom felt they were too scary.

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December 14, 2018

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