A sculptor turns rust into razzle-dazzle art

David Erue in his studio. - Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff  Photo
David Erue in his studio.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo

It’s easy to find sculptor David Erue’s house on Cove Road — there’s a baby elephant next to the driveway.

The five-foot tall pachyderm has plenty of personality. She has big sad eyes, and a bejeweled headpiece droops royally downward onto her sweet face. And although the baby’s saggy, baggy legs are wrapped in tire chains, a few feathers extend outward from the bottom of her trunk — perhaps, like Dumbo, she is getting ready to fly away.

The elephant is Erue’s latest creation, meticulously and creatively fabricated from rusted sheet metal and other found materials, and he’ll be showing it off this Saturday, along with other sculptures, at the WisEnergy Fair in Island Lumber’s parking lot. The fair, held in collaboration with Island Ingenuity and Solar Tour, aims to educate the broader community about ways to conserve energy and live sustainably.

Erue’s artworks, and indeed his entire way of life, seem to be solidly in keeping with the ethos of reducing, recycling and reusing.

One of the first stops on a tour of Erue’s property is an area tucked away behind his studio, where he’s neatly laid out piles of items islanders have brought him to use in his work.

“All I ask is that people call me first, before dropping things off,” he cautioned. “I want to be sure I can use it, and I’m not going to take people’s stuff to the dump for them.”

There’s a twisted pile of rebar, a big pile of brightly colored lawn mower blades, two shiny motorcycle rims, a rusted tractor seat and hundreds of other unidentifiable pieces of metal that once whirred and hummed inside all kinds of machines and gizmos.

Now, those scraps of discarded steel are Erue’s raw materials for forging outdoor sculptures that range from whimsical slugs to a majestic eagle with a 5-foot wing span.

Using found objects, he said, helps him keep the price of his artwork low.

“I get my materials for next to nothing, so I can keep things reasonable,” he said.

Still, he said, pricing his work has always been tricky for him, and he thinks it’s also hard for a lot of artists.

“I don’t keep track of my time when I make this stuff, because I’m afraid I’ll find out I’m making $5 an hour,” he said.

Some of his creations have found a home in his own backyard. His partner, Bobbi Arnold, is a well-known island gardener, and she’s created several lovely garden “rooms” that surround the small house where she and Erue live together.

“If I leave something out for too long, she takes it and puts it in the garden,” Erue said, as he ambled past Arnold’s well-tended beds — garden spaces so beautiful that to walk through them feels like stepping into the pages of a picture book.

The place is clearly a labor of love and a place of collaboration between Erue and Arnold. A vegetable garden stands behind an intricate metal gate crafted by Erue. A tree, festooned with blue bottles, is topped by a comical bluebird that Erue cut from

usted metal. Some of his more abstract works peek out from behind lush foliage. Perfect clusters of grapes encircle an arbor Arnold fashioned from bent concrete reinforcement that someone had given to Erue.

“It was something she snitched from me,” Erue said.

Erue’s sculptures are also tucked away in other gardens all over Vashon and beyond, but his best known work, locally, is a large sculpture that stands in the center of town — a life-sized giraffe that holds court outside of Giraffe, a shop that sells fair trade gift and craft items.

The giraffe is constructed of rusted scrap metal, stainless steel and discarded shelving from True Value, and viewers can peak into it, through the cracks in its structure, to see a metal heart suspended within its chest.

Giraffe co-owner Jim Kimmel said he was glad that he and his wife, Priscilla Schleigh, had commissioned Erue to create the sculpture.

“I think it only took him about 60 hours to make it, and he worked to our budget,” Kimmel said.

Best of all, Kimmel said, is the way the sculpture has changed in the three years it has stood outside the shop, developing new rust and dappled patinas.

“The more I look at it, the better it looks,” he said. “He did a great job.”

But old metal isn’t all that Erue has refashioned over the years. As it turns out, he’s also rebooted his own life several times, switching from one career to another in a trajectory that only found him fully developing his latent artistic talent when he was in his mid-50s.

He’s 71 years old now, a tall man with a wry smile, a shock of unruly white hair, and the gait of a man with two hip replacement surgeries behind him. He’s also stealthily stylish — it takes a few minutes for a visitor to notice that his faded black T-shirt has a cool Harley Davidson logo on it, and that his eyewear is also trendy — titanium steel frames with an aviator bridge and wide legs spiked with bright yellow accents.

In his 20- by 15-foot shop, a neat-as-a-pin space where he teaches workshops and makes art, Erue perches on a stool, peers out from behind those glasses and tells his story.

He was born in Iowa, but raised on Queen Anne Hill, one of two sons of a plumber and a homemaker. He took a high school ceramics class, and later, in this 20s and 30s, he became a photographer, selling some of his work. In his younger years, he also showed his Great Dane, winning top prizes for her at dog shows in Washington and Oregon.

But for the most part, he worked at a series of blue collar jobs for decades. For 25 years, he was a cook, toiling at the Beach Broiler, the Alki landmark that became Salty’s in the mid-1980s. After leaving his cooking job, he switched gears to open a daycare center in Seattle, filling his backyard with a one-of-a-kind sandbox made from an old boat, a tire swing and toys he crafted himself.

“I like kids, and I could get along with them,” he said, when asked why he decided to go into daycare. “I was told I was the first licensed male daycare provider in Seattle.”

But in 1985, Erue picked up and moved to Vashon, where he found employment first at Seattle’s Best Coffee, and later at the Ace Hardware housed in what is now Pandora’s Box.

It was at the age of 53, he said, recovering from his first hip surgery, that he asked his younger brother, who rebuilds hot rods and classic cars, to teach him how to weld. And by the time he was 62, Erue said, he had retired completely from his other jobs and was exclusively making sculptures.

The self-taught artist is now himself an educator, opening his studio two or three times a year for classes in welding, plasma cutting and making art, held in conjunction with Vashon Allied Arts. He also has some large and small commissions in the pipeline, and he’s going to make a metal dog for an upcoming show at the Vashon Allied Arts Gallery.

The artist said he doesn’t want to spend time keeping a website for himself up-to-date, and relies instead on more old-school methods — word of mouth and referrals from happy buyers — to find new buyers.

For the past year, he said, he has purposefully slowed down a bit, and taken a break from participating in the Vashon Island Artists’ Studio Tour, so he could go on the tour himself and look at other artists’ work.

But come January, he’s planning to dive back into creating more sculptures. He’s motivated to sell, he said, so he can keep creating.

“If I get too much in my yard, I feel like I can’t make anymore,” he said. “I want to see it go down the road, so I can make more stuff.”

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