Farmer is Picasso of Junk Metal

American Artisans, Americana, People, Traditions
on September 30, 2010
Chad Surmick The artist displays his eclectic works at art festivals in California, Colorado and Washington, in addition to galleries in California and Hawaii.

Amid a shower of sparks inside his farm-inspired art studio in Suisun, Calif. (pop. 26,118), sculptor Phillip Glashoff, 60, wields a hand-held blow torch to weld two ball-bearing eyes onto a foot-long iron fish fashioned from a motorcycle’s exhaust system.

Flecks of molten iron fly through the air inside his barn-like studio while, outside, cattle graze near an orchard of orange and walnut trees.

“I grew up farming,” Glashoff says of his 20-acre homestead in northern California. “When I get burned out, the land draws me back and keeps me grounded.”

Raised on a 300-acre farm owned by four generations of his family, Glashoff began using rusty metal from old tractors and other outdated equipment on the property to create his art during the 1980s. “My father never threw anything away,” recalls Glashoff, who eventually ran out of materials and began hauling in discarded metal with his pickup truck.

“Junkyard owners love me. I buy things nobody wants,” he adds, scanning a jumble of broken bicycles, assorted car parts and empty fire extinguishers in his workshop. “Everything’s recycled.”

Glasshoff’s studio is surrounded by green, rolling hills where his parents, Martin and Elsada Glashoff, raised apricots, pears, peaches and corn, and sold homemade pies and cakes at a roadside stand. When they died in 2000, his younger brother, Larry, took over operation of the farm to grow berries and prunes. Phillip retained for himself enough land to cultivate art and tend to a small herd of Scottish Highlander cows and a Great Dane, Gustav. Some of his metal works—fashioned into giant guitars, pink panthers and cartoonish trombone players—dot the land.

Glashoff considers himself more artist than farmer, even though he “had zero knowledge of art growing up,” he recalls. “I studied agriculture (at California State Polytechnic University) and learned welding making frames for Rose Bowl floats.”

After graduating in 1974 with a degree in fruit science, Glashoff returned to the farm and began to develop his artistic style.

His father was not supportive, however, and Glashoff left to work at the Nut Tree, a well-known fruit stand, restaurant and event center along Interstate 80 in nearby Vacaville (pop. 88,625). “I managed their farms and ranchland. They grew apples, peaches and prunes and had an art gallery,” he recalls.

During pumpkin-growing season, Glashoff invited customers to create scarecrows for the business’ pumpkin patch, inspiring the Nut Tree’s annual scarecrow contest. “By 1989, we had 250,000 people coming to see the scarecrows each Halloween,” says Glashoff, who soon began incorporating discarded scarecrows into his art.

When Martin Glashoff saw that his son was determined to be an artist, he let him use the farm’s equipment in 1991 to build a single-room workshop attached to their farmhouse.

When he sets to work, Glashoff never plans what the finished sculpture will look like. “I favor spontaneous design,” he says with a smile. “I look at the shape of the metal and let it inspire me. After 30 years, you’d think I’d run out of images, but I like making fun of the human race. That’s an endless inspiration.”

Glashoff’s depictions of humans and animals are whimsical and humorous, but many have spiritual and ecological themes. Madonnas, saints and angels stand alongside giant rabbits, ballet dancers and abstract pieces. “I’m a folk artist. I try to evoke a spiritual reaction with my pieces to bring a little light and humor into the world,” he says.

The result is striking, according to Judith Hale, who created a sculpture garden to showcase Glashoff’s work at her art gallery in Los Olivos, Calif. “His pieces stop people in their tracks,” says Hale, 69. “Maybe it’s the shock of seeing familiar objects like kitchen utensils and bicycle seats in a different context.”

Glashoff shows his work in galleries in California and Hawaii, but prefers selling directly at summer art festivals in California, Colorado and Washington. He also hosts open houses that draw several thousand people to his farm twice a year. Guests donate old pieces of metal for admittance, where they walk the land and view his displays, hear live rock ’n’ roll bands and enjoy shish kebabs grilled by Glashoff himself.

Beverly Canova, 68, of Vacaville, is a regular at the events. “I love his pieces,” says Canova, who also knew Glashoff’s parents. “What Picasso did to canvas, Phillip does to junk metal.”