Vocation to Creation

by | Apr 1, 2014 | Features

Doug Hensley‘s rich baritone voice carries through the cool February air with authority, but it’s tinged with down home warmth. “Pull the car up closer, and get out of that mud.” I do just that and park on dry ground near the door of his shop.
Doug is of average height with broad shoulders and silver hair. Doug turned 72-years-old just a few weeks ago. His voice exudes confidence and the hair tells you years of wisdom stand behind the words, but his hands tell the real story.
Doug’s hands are really like paws. They are huge. Even though he and I are roughly the same height, they easily swallow my mitts. Thick fingers squeeze and a hearty shake follows as he introduces himself. I can’t stop staring at his hands, though. Scarred, husky and broad, with joints and tendons strained by hard work. The first joint on his right hand middle finger angles toward the ring finger. His hands speak more to what I’ve come here to talk about than any words he can say. They are hands that have spent a lifetime working with metal. Bending, twisting, melding, forming, creating and fabricating with metal.
Like many craftsman, Doug started out working for his father. And, like many craftsman that walked that path, it wasn’t by choice. At the age of thirteen Doug began helping in his dad’s sheet metal shop in Topeka, Kansas. “Of course, back in those days the kids had to work,” said Doug. I ask if this was something he wanted to do back all those years ago as a boy. “It was something I had to do,” said Doug.
But as we stand in front of the shop just a few yards from his house, a shop filled with welders, grinders, metal and an eight-foot-tall horse fabricated out of horseshoes, I get the sense that somewhere between that first job and today something about creating with metal changed from obligation to passion. I am right. I ask why he still does it today, a decade after retirement. “It got in my blood,” said Doug, and he accents the statement with a hearty chuckle.
Doug was the shop rat for his dad, sweeping floors, cleaning up and helping build things with metal. Sixty years later, he is still sweeping floors, prepping for jobs and building things with metal. In the blood could be an understatement. What started out as an obligation to his father has blossomed into a creative outlet.
After a stint in the Navy, Doug found himself in Oakland, California, working for a company that built things from stainless steel. It seemed every job that found Doug had something to do with metal fabrication. As the years and projects rolled along, Doug realized his work was more than work. “My dad told me one time that when you finally figure out what you’re supposed to do it will come to you,” said Doug. “You might be asleep at three in the morning, but you’ll see it. There’ll be a picture in your mind. You can just look at, say a box, and you know you can build it. Dad was right.”
All of this eventually led to Doug settling in the River Valley and opening Custom Sheet Metal by Doug Hensley in Dardanelle. Even after selling the business and settling into retirement, metal work is still what gets him out to the shop nearly every day.
Doug’s blue-collar work ethic and persona might lead folks to believe his abilities point to a purely utilitarian attitude about metal. But all of Doug’s metalworking skill comes from personal experience with no training more formal than watching his dad. Intuitive skill reveals an artistic mind. The gleaming eight-foot tall horse sculpture sitting in the middle of his shop confirms this.
The horse is made entirely of horseshoes, but irony is often a component of art. “One day I was on the computer and I saw this picture of this horse made by this guy in England, and I thought, well I can do that.”
Doug started the sculpture on January 14, 2012 with no plans and no drawings, just a picture printed from the internet and a vision. You could call it freehand sculpting. “I had about 200 horseshoes when I started,” said Doug. “I looked at the picture and I started by building a hoof.” Width and length of a horseshoe varies little, but to get the proportions and symmetry just right some of the shoes had to be bent. “So then I had to build a shop press so that I could bend some of the horseshoes,” said Doug. A do-it-yourself man doesn’t buy what he can build.
Doug counted horseshoes on the picture and built his horse accordingly. “But then I got up to about here,” Doug points to the iron steed’s haunches. It was then that he realized just how big the project was. “With 200 horseshoes I’m only going to have a quarter of a horse.” And so began the search for more horseshoes.
Doug talked with veterinarian Dr. John Davis about where to find horseshoes and Davis sent him to farrier Paul Doriss in Centerville. “I told Dorris what I was doing, and I needed to buy beg or steal horseshoes,” said Doug.
Doriss had a pile of horseshoes, and offered them all. Doug describes the width and depth of the pile, gesturing with a hand held waist high. He talks of what the pile taught him about horseshoes, that the more square shaped ones are actually mule shoes, that some are handmade and some are factory made. “I’ve learned a lot about horseshoes,” said Doug. One thing all of the shoes had in common was that they were dirty. Doug cleaned every one, by hand, at a rate of 25 per day. As pictures accompanying this article can attest, the horseshoe horse shines in sunlight. The completed horse required 700 horseshoes and weighs about 800 pounds. Doug has two other projects, one with 580 and one with 470 horseshoes, sitting in a neighbor’s yard just down the road.
Retirement has been a busy time for Doug. Besides building horseshoe sculptures, Doug repaired a historic bell at the Danville United Methodist Church. The bell was damaged while being moved years ago due to a lack of heavy equipment said Doug. “Back then Danville was a little town, and didn’t have any big cranes or heavy equipment, and they didn’t know exactly what to do.”
So the local farmers decided to push some dirt together as a cushion and push the tower over. “They thought, well, if we push it over from this side it ought to land on the dirt pile,” said Doug. “Well, it didn’t, and the thing weighs 2,500 pounds.” The yoke was broken and repairs at the time made the bell lopsided. The bell sat askew for years, Doug wasn’t sure how many, but when the church members decided to repair it they asked Doug to do it.
The bell yoke repair was a huge undertaking, and something that Doug wasn’t sure he could handle. “I had never worked on a bell. I turned the job down three times,” said Doug. He finally decided to take the job and used connections made through owning his business to enlist help from other metal specialists in the River Valley. David Corbin at C&C Machine shop was one of those, but Corbin had the same amount of experience with bells that Doug had. “I asked David if he knew anything about bells, and he said, well, I know they make a lot of noise and they’re heavy.”
There is something about a challenge that inspires creative people. The thought of looking at problems from different angles, the opportunity to hunt for a solution that requires the addition of new skills is hard to resist. Perhaps this was the deciding factor for why he took the job. Even while Doug was telling me about turning it down, I could sense that he was always intrigued by the challenge. And despite his inexperience and trepidation, Doug finished the project. Today the bell stands on the south side of the Danville United Methodist Church, hanging in perfect balance on its yoke.
After nearly six decades of transforming cold metal into useful products and works of art, Doug shows no signs of slowing down. His eyes flash with energy as he leads me on a tour of metal art in his yard. His hands, burly and tough, point to his work that decorates the rural Yell County acreage he calls home. You can hear the energy in that rich baritone, too. He doesn’t try to hide the enthusiasm.
I ask him about the drive that keeps him going. Has metalwork been just a job? “No,” said Doug. “It’s always been about the creativity, too.” Has it been something he feels obligated to do because of working with his dad? “It was at first,” said Doug. Is it more than those things; is it something you do just because you want too? Is it fun? “Oh god yeah,” said Doug. “I love it.”

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