Some call it art. Some call it clutter. Still others call it junk. Whatever you call it, passing by South Third and Grand street sin Hamburg, Bill Rhodes' lime green house with a yard full of eclectic art makes one take notice.
Rhodes' intriguing array of scrapyard metal artwork is boldly original, compelling and even a bit avant-garde. The dragons, aliens, ostriches and abstract pieces that are residents of his corner property are the genius of a septuagenarian with a lot of time and talent.
Rhodes is a man for all seasons. His interests vary from dancing to doo-wop, art to architecture. He grew up in Steelton and attended community college with an interest in architecture. He attended trade school to study welding. He spent 57 years as a welder, at one time working at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility.
Eventually his career path morphed , and he became a pile driver supervisor working in the mid-Atlantic area. After retiring, Rhodes found he couldn’t sit still and decided to use his welding skills coupled with his artistic mind to create a veritable cornucopia of sculptures.
What started with a piece he designed for Cumberland Valley High School has grown into an entire yard filled with boldly colored, metal sculptures configured from reclaimed and recycled scrap. Rhodes scours local flea markets and scrapyards to find his treasures. Several of his favorite haunts are in Schuylkill County.
“Sometimes I get ideas first, other times when looking through a pile of junk I find inspiration,” Rhodes said when asked how he creates. “It may be something as simple as a kitchen utensil or as complex as an old carburetor.”
Old things get new life
Rhodes bought the 220-year-old farmhouse a few years ago. The home had been vacant for years and was essentially uninhabitable. Slowly, the old, dilapidated home took on a new life. He tore out the guts of the home, reconstructing, reconfiguring and remodeling. He began by designing six apartments, one by one, each with its own unique style. As he remodeled, he lived in each apartment he completed until he finally moved into his own apartment on the second floor.
From the lime green house paint to the ornate dark green wrought iron railing, reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter, the exterior beckons visitors. Following Rhodes into his house, one gets a sense of Alice going down the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland." A whole other world awaits visitors to his small apartment.
“Artistically eclectic” may be the proper way to describe his home. Every inch is reclaimed or repurposed. Old doors became windows, the front door became a room divider, wooden scraps were transformed into ceiling art. The dissected string section of a piano hangs on the wall above his sofa and old wall sconces from a New York hotel of yesteryear are paired with the piano keys to create a light fixture that is one of Rhodes’ favorite pieces.
“This piece is very special to me,” Rhodes said. “It was designed by my dear friend and co-creator Dar Ray, an artist who lives in Hershey.”
Ray is the creative talent behind many of his pieces. Rhodes gives her credit for coming up with many of the ideas for his creations.
“She (Ray) makes me better at creating,” Rhodes said. “She comes up with an idea and I put it into metal.”
Curiouser and curiouser
Rhodes began populating his garden with his whimsical creations years ago. His unconventional artwork has made his property a focal point in Hamburg. Locals are appreciative of his talent, and he welcomes people to stop by and take pictures or talk with him. Rhodes said one local woman told him that every time she passes by his home she feels like Alice in Wonderland.
I’ve never had the neighbors complain,” Rhodes said, “and the city has even asked me to do a sculpture for them.”
Rhodes laughs when he tells how he’s had people from across the country and even from other countries stop to take pictures of his artwork.
“I tell people they are always welcome to take pictures,” Rhodes said. Why wouldn’t I?”
Busier and busier
Rhodes is proud of his artwork. He’s been creating it for 10 years and plans to continue for many more. When he stumbles on an idea, he becomes obsessed, working endlessly to bring his idea to life. His goal is to market his work, specializing in custom pieces. Finding a selling platform or middleman has been a big hurdle for Rhodes, who doesn’t own a computer and isn’t interested in learning to use one.
“I’d like to do custom pieces for people and sell them,” Rhodes said, “but it’s hard to find a niche in which to sell them.”
Age hasn’t slowed Rhodes down. In addition to working and creating, he teaches a weeklong sculpture class called Whimsical Welding at Snow Farm in Massachusetts at least twice a year. With his guidance and inspiration, his students learn the craft of welding old, tired parts into extraordinary pieces art. And searching through life’s discarded flotsam and jetsam for that special gem to give new life to takes time.
“I hate to throw something old away, especially if it catches my eye,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes’ creations apparently catch many peoples’ eyes. His garden keeps growing as he sows the seeds of creativity.