TORRINGTON – Sometimes at arts and crafts shows, a potential customer will approach Matthew Hickman and take a look at the metal flowers, signage and other pieces spread out before him.
In this age where any product on the planet is available with a click of the screen, they don’t realize what they’re seeing. The crafted, custom pieces of art in front of them aren’t Hobby Lobby shipments from the Orient – they’re fashioned by hand through sweat, and sometimes even blood, on High Street in Torrington.
“At all the shows, you may put hours and hours into a piece, you will never get out of it what you put into it,” Hickman said. “You just kind of have to find a happy medium that you can sell.
“Sometimes people are like ‘you just buy these and sell these, don’t you?’ I’m like ‘no, everything’s handmade. Trust me, I have the blisters to prove it.’”
Hickman’s the burly, bearded metalsmith behind Wyldman Metal Art, LLC. He’s been welding since his grandfather, John, taught him the basics on an antique 40-volt machine in the garage that is now Hickman’s metal shop. He took a liking to the trade and took every welding class Cheyenne East High School had to offer. He graduated from Eastern Wyoming College with a welding degree and went into to the pipeline industry.
But after a few years, the brutal, unforgiving pipeline work took its toll on Hickman.
“I got two back injuries, and my back doctor, after I had some surgery, he told me not to go back into welding,” Hickman said. “I got my welding degree from EWC, I wanted to still do that.
“I was bouncing from job to job. I did seasonal work for weed and pest and then I got on full-time at the college. I got to the point where I was like ‘OK, I have to do something.’”
That something was metal art. Hickman started his business on the same old welder his grandfather used, and it grew from there. Hickman started by making metal flowers – which have become one of his trademark items – with a pile of stencils. He’d trace the petals onto the metal with a marker, then cut them out by hand.
Luckily, it proved to be worth the time and sore forearms.
“I started doing the roses and everything,” Hickman said. “The first show we went to was in the Scottsbluff Mall and we sold out. Then we got the business license, started handling the sales tax and grew it.”
Wyldman Metal Art started out in a corner of John’s cluttered garage. Hickman had to work his way around an old Ford tractor and a few decades of accumulation to start his business. Almost exactly two years later, the garage has transformed into a top-notch metal shop. It now has the equipment to weld or cut about anything and a CNC machine.
“We started off really small,” he said. “It was just baby steps, really. A lot of my paychecks went to this. It’s been a year now since I haven’t put too much money into and it’s been self-sustaining or even exceeding what we put into it.
“Our first year in business, we didn’t do so well. We did all right. The second year, we tripled our profits, and we were pretty close to breaking even, but we got so much more equipment. It’s easier now for me instead of putting in so much more time. Now I’m more able to manufacture it.”
But despite his early love of welding, Hickman said he never expected to be crafting metal art. He took a few art classes in high school, but didn’t think he’d ever use of any of it. He made a few signs in high school, and completed the odd project while he was working on the pipeline. It wasn’t until the injuries that he considered metal art – and he still struggles to call himself an artist.
“If you asked me back in high school, I probably would have never said I’d be doing this,” he said. “I probably would have been on the pipeline, or doing something like that.
“Everybody tells me I’m an artist, but I don’t think so. I really don’t. I feel like I kind of just do what’s in demand. I take everyone else’s ideas and I just form them in a different way.”
Hickman’s built quite a reputation for his skills at forming those ideas. When he first started, he learned a lot of techniques from YouTube videos, or by asking around at craft fairs. Once he had the basics down, he’d set to work on improving the technique and making it his own.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” he said. “My rose heads, I’m on my 13th template. Each time I change them, I finally found one that’s more modern. It kind of has like a built-in drain so it won’t store water. I’ve been thinking about those concepts.”
However those concepts come about, whether it’s skill, trial and error, or a combination of both and a natural ability he’s learned to hone after so many years of turning sheets of steel into pieces of art, every piece of Hickman’s work is unique.
“It’s all one-of-a-kind,” he said. “When I first started, all of my new pieces, I would actually stamp them with an edition. It started taking off and I let that go. I still have the very first of certain things.”
And that’s what you’re looking at if you see Hickman and Wyldman Metal Art at a craft show. It’s not a mass-produced piece – it’s years of experiences, from Hickman learning to weld with his grandfather, to college, to the pipeline, to cutting out signs by hand. It’s dedication, skill and time – all dying values he’s trying to champion and keep alive in a one-click society.
“It is a dying thing,” he said. “Each show we go to, there are less and less people. We talk to the vendors and the hosts, the woodworkers, the metal art guys, they’re getting rare.”