Inspiration can strike like a bolt of lightning in the sky, or it can arrive quietly and wait patiently for the right moment to sneak into a person’s consciousness. When it happens, it’s like magic; everything is clear and focused, bringing about a sense of euphoria and new energy that’s sometimes difficult to describe.
Nathan Orton of Caro, Michigan, says his inspiration was right in front of him for the longest time, but he wasn’t aware of it until one summer day when everything literally fell into place. “I was out in the barn whistling to Hector, our 13-year-old Percheron gelding. It was time to trim his hooves, a task I enjoy wholeheartedly because anytime being around this amazing animal is pure joy for me.
Hector was a rescue, coming from a situation of neglect and isolation, so ever since that time when we brought him home, he’s showered us with such gratitude and devotion, thanking us repeatedly with gentle nudges and contented snorts. His personality reminds me of a sweet-natured Golden Retriever–happy, jolly and ready for fun.”
Nathan says it was an ordinary afternoon, but for some reason he looked at his good buddy in a different light that day. The sun was shining brightly behind Hector as he moseyed in from the pasture, creating a beautifulsilhouette of his head, mane and massive neck. Nathan stood there in awe, completely captivated with the image before him. He always felt draft horses were especially handsome, but this particular sight that day moved him deeply.
Earlier that afternoon, Nathan had spent some time straightening up his shop when a past issue of The Draft Horse Journal toppled off the work bench onto the floor, opening to a page with an old-time photograph of a Percheron plowing a field. For some reason, unbeknownst at the time, Nathan propped the magazine up against the wall, placing a horseshoe in front of it to keep it open, and then went back to the barn to gather his tools to trim Hector’s hooves.
It wasn’t until later when he returned to close up things for the evening that Nathan remembered the magazine, taking it with him to the house to read after dinner. But, the words didn’t hold his attention; it was the snapshot of that Percheron preparing the earth for a field of hay that captured his heart. That, with the memory of Hector standing in the sunlight, gave way to a creative spurt of energy that inspired him to create a life-size sculpture honoring the mighty draft horse.
A Passion for Art
Working with his hands is something Nathan enjoys, whether it’s doing his own farrier work, remodeling the house, playing the guitar at church, painting saw blades or tinkering in his shop on a variety of projects. A high school welding class inspired him to learn more, eventually leading to a job working for a sheet metal company.
“I’ve always enjoyed poking around metal scrap yards and junk shops, bringing home all sorts of found objects to weld into practical projects around the farm, like gates and fencing, porch railings and garden trellises for my wife, Lisa. It wasn’t until I discovered the amazing work by sculptor and scrap metal artist, John Lopez from South Dakota, that I realized what else could be done with recycled materials. John is well-known and respected for his western and rodeo theme cast bronzes and his newfound interest in working with scrap metal. He has combined the two into an art form called Hybrid Metal Art which he describes as a fusion of figurative and funk, a blend of iron and bronze."One look at his web site literally had me running for the shop to see what I could do. It’s amazing how the brain works in wondrous ways, opening up all sorts of creative ideas when you discover something new. Thanks to John Lopez, I’m taking on new challenges that bring such joy and great satisfaction to life (www.lopez-ranch.net ).”
Nathan marvels at the way individual pieces of scrap metal come to life when welding them together, commenting on how times flies and everyday concerns and worries drift away. Most individuals agree that creating art is a mesmerizing experience, explaining how energizing it is to “be in the moment” with the work in front of them, whether it’s painting a canvas, throwing a bowl on a potter’s wheel or striking metal with an arc when welding.
When Nathan found the inspiration to create the mighty draft horse, he began with the head, pulling together a variety of objects laid out on his work bench: horseshoes, a saw blade, a rusty spade shovel, old car and motorcycle parts, chains, a slotted spoon, hinges, lug nuts, bolts, pipe, springs and wire. “Nothing was safe around the house and garden,” explains Lisa with a laugh, “I had to check his pockets daily, keeping an eagle-eye on him, especially after he tried to snitch a beautiful set of candlesticks from the fireplace mantle.”
By the time Nathan completed sculpturing the head–a project that took three-and-a-half years (800 to 900 hours) when time allowed in-between chores on the farm and his job as an equine-assisted therapy trainer at a nearby children’s residential home, the life-size piece weighed in at 120 lbs. The finishing touch was attaching the ears made from hand-bent sheet metal and welding individual pieces of wire into place for the flowing mane. A tall pole holds the horse high, waiting for Nathan to continue on, completing the rest of the body, which is now a work-in-progress. The center piece will be constructed with plow disks and the frame of a girl’s pedal bicycle from the 1940s, turned upside down. Obviously, a big part of the project will be finding more scrap metal and unique items; Lisa is standing guard at the house, checking an inventory list whenever her inventive husband goes in and out the door.
“Working on this piece was an amazing journey,” Nathan recalls fondly. “I felt it was fitting to name my newfound friend, ‘Unsung Hero,’ especially as it began taking shape. Again, inspiration came when looking out at Hector in the pasture. How happy this horse is living and working with us on the farm where we breed Nigerian Dwarf goats. Watching him interact with our two other horses is such a treat–a North American Spotted Draft named Jack, and Red, our Standardbred, a retired racehorse. He seems to relish being part of the herd that also includes a menagerie of dogs, cats, chickens and peacocks. Everyone gets along beautifully.
"Interacting with Hector has taught me so much about these magnificent animals, especially how they love to work and be productive. I’ve always enjoyed reading about draft horses in history and how they’ve carried men into battle during wartime, how they’ve helped build and shape many cities and villages around the world, and the work they do in the fields, forests and all the other places where humans need help. ‘Unsung Hero’ pays tribute to all the draft horses–past, present, and those in the future. It’s my way of saying thank you and showing appreciation for their presence in the world.”
One wonders if Hector recognizes himself in the sculpture through the window in the shop and what an inspiration he’s been to the young man in the welder’s helmet, hammering and shaping metal into a piece of art. Does he realize that his adoption and bringing him home to Sunnyside Farm planted a seed and set a goal in motion in creating a sanctuary for abused, neglected and retired horses?
Probably not, but those things aren’t important to Hector. He’s more interested in scratches behind the ears, looking for carrots in Nathan’s pockets and soaking up the love he gets each and every day on the farm. He also knows, as stirring as any sculpture might be, a live and furry horse is a lot more fun, especially when his best buddy wants to ride through the countryside. That alone is inspiration for a jolly good time!