Friday, November 9, 2012

ArtTrail #9: Fence Post Bandit

"The artist's world is limitless. 
It can be found anywhere,
far from where he lives
or a few feet away. 
It is always on his doorstep." 
Paul Strand

Cory Holmes, of Havre, Montana, is a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway conductor with a penchant for welding scrap metal into art. Many of his pieces, the majority of which he places himself,  mysteriously appear on fence posts around the country. Most of those can be found along the long, lonely highways  in a wide area of Montana, where he has become known as the Fence Post Bandit.

"Electric Man"

I've been hoarding scrap iron for better than four decades; never with a particular thought of selling it though. In fact, I don't believe I ever have sold any steel or iron as scrap. I don't just gather and collect any arbitrary metal; that would be both redundant and boring. I hand pick interesting forms, with unique shapes and histories.

"Model A Horse"

My scrap pile is between 60 and 80 tons at this point. Each piece of scrap played a part in the history of this nation: the springs and hardware from old buggies and farm wagons, the moldboard plows, cycle bar mowers, and horse drawn combines. There were old pieces and parts from oil rigs, pipelines, seismograph outfits and so on. I had railroad parts from hardware from the telegraphs, parts of steam locomotives and various sundry parts from tracks, switches, cabooses and box cars. There were spent military cartridges, helmets, bayonets and various hardware. Interesting stuff....but what does one do with it? Well I do sculptures. I have been doing metal sculptures for about twelve years, as far as the fence art sculptures go, I have been doing them about ten years now.

One day I was reading some farm journal and there was an article that said there were 35 million fence posts in Montana. I thought hmmmm, I wonder how they know that? Do they have fence post census takers? Not too long after I read the article I had to take a trip to Glendive and as I drove along the endless prairie I thought, gee, somebody ought to decorate around here and make this drive a little more interesting. So, I figured why not me? I'll just whip up some stuff and honk it on the top of fence post. And viola, fence art was born.

"Monster Face"
Now, ponder this for a moment. A farmer is seeding his field for the umpteenth time. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a strange apparition perched on a fence post his father set forty years ago as a teenager. "What the heck is that?" he thinks and parks his tractor trundles over and takes a look. He stares a while, scratches his head and goes back to farming. Pretty soon, over coffee at the grain elevator he asks his neighbor if he has seen any weird stuff on fence posts. Strangely, his neighbor says yes, he has a thing on one of his fence post too. What are they? No one knows. Who put them there? No clue. What do they mean? No idea. So they ponder the mystery. They talk about it. We have social interaction between neighbors; perhaps not a bad idea in this age of wireless anonymity.

In order to do sculptures I have to bend and shape and fabricate all this stuff. My specific method of making sculptures is called the direct metal technique. That means that I have to arrange, shape, forge, grind and polish all things by hand. It also means each one of my pieces is an original and a one of a kind. I use a number of different fabrication methods in making my sculptures and fence art, I use a coal forge and trip hammer when I have to do blacksmithing. I also weld with a combination of gasses, a method rapidly becoming obsolete but sometimes necessary to achieve a certain look or effect.

"Spikes and Springs"

I thought I would probably quit when I expended my original 50 or 60 tons of scrap iron but an interesting thing happened. Once people heard what I was doing they started bringing me more scrap. And some really interesting stuff too. I found a 200 lb camshaft from a locomotive someone had left in my truck, buckets of square nuts from the 1920s, and huge rivets from a disassembled bridge. The list goes on, and so does fence art production.

"Ode to Maud Muller"

Near as I can tell I have in the neighborhood of 700 pieces of fence art in 17 states and two Canadian provinces. In actuality I cannot be certain the people who I gave fence art to actually put them up as they said they would and claimed they did. I, however, have personally put them up in 11 states and two Canadian Provinces. I would have put a couple up in Hawaii as well but airline regulations make this almost impossible.

I never ask permission - of course, in a perfect world I would. I try to avoid the unpleasantness of explaining what manner of unbridled weirdness I am committing to some farmer's fence post. So almost without fail my fence arts are placed in pretty remote places.

"Longhorn Cow"

I like to put them on the skyline whenever possible because they are easier to see. The single most important part is the fencepost. It has to be a substantial post and unfortunately most post are not. Railroad tie fencepost are king. I try not to place them on brace post next to gates because I don’t want it to snag a farmer’s header on a combine or swather. I try not to place them in near proximity to houses unless somebody specifically asks me to. I have put a goodly number of fence art in national forest, but, to be honest they are difficult to see because of the trees. The upside is they don't get stolen nearly as often as the prairie variety.

Thievery can be a problem but it does not bother me as much as it confuses me. I don't understand why people take them but sometimes they do. I can only speculate that sometimes they are offended that someone put something up on a fence because they own the fence, or because it’s just too far out of their realm of normalness, or maybe because they took a shine to it and wanted it in their back yard.
"Hands and Tire Wrench"

I give anybody that wants a fence art, a fence art. But I prefer if they come and get it from me at my home, or wait until it’s convenient for me to deliver it. Yes I do sell my work. But not fence art, it's free.

"Fence Chicken"
Of all the reasons Cory gives for creating fence art: boredom, wanderlust, cheap mindless entertainment, lack of adult supervision, frustration with deadlines, disgust with 50% commission fees at art galleries, lack of parameters, love of the creative process, potential longevity, lack of expected political correctness, ultimate freedom of choice, shock value, an excuse to travel to unseen places and the challenge to convey an idea or concept in a brief moment, he says, "Mostly I guess I did it because it was really fun."
"What art offers is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit. "
John Updike

Cory's words here were taken from an interview that appeared on the Glacier Electric Cooperative, Inc. web site. Click HERE to read the complete article.

To view more of Cory's fantastic fence art:


  1. What a unique subject! I especially love his reasons for creating fence art :)I'll have to find an excuse to take a road trip through Montana and hope to find some.

  2. i LOVE this!!!!!

    so many times i have thought of trying my hand at this metal art...art from metal scrap...throw away stuff!!

    spikes & springs...chicken...maud muller...electric man...OH, heck...i just can't say which is my favorite! i LOVE them all. so imaginative!!!!

    what's one person's JUNK, is another's TREASURE!!

    love this!!!!