When he looks at bicycle chains, wrenches, faucets and springs, he sees men, grasshoppers, giraffes and flowers.
One of his most recent sculptures is of three bicyclists trekking along County Line Road, noticeable at the head of his driveway. The trio — a man, woman and child — are made of welded steel and are the entrance to southside resident Karl Derr’s evolving art collection.
Derr is a plumber by trade. In his free time, he fashions creations like bouncing guitar players, steel ants and zoo animals.
Turning metal parts into art is a hobby he’s tinkered at daily since the 1970s. He rarely sells anything he makes because he likes to keep the pieces or give them as gifts.
Derr just recently began going more public with his artwork. This spring, he stuck the first bicyclist out by the street. In the following weeks, he added the woman and child.
He wanted motorists to think they were seeing a real cyclist and maybe think about watching for bike riders when they drive, he said. He bikes hundreds of miles every year and doesn’t think most people understand that bikes have as much right to the road as cars, he said.
Derr also wanted to share a little of his handiwork with the thousands of drivers on County Line Road. Since then, he said, he’s gotten an appreciative phone call or a curious visitor at his house nearly every day.
Passers-by who turn into his driveway get a journey into a lawn art gallery, hidden at the end of a long lane and surrounded by a patch of trees. He has continually modified the display since moving into the home in the 1980s.
After turning into the gravel lane next to the bicyclists, visitors see little men holding signs asking motorists to slow down.
Then they see a spotted Dalmatian pup made from a garden spade, standing next to a red fire hydrant.
And then they’re in front of the house, in view of the metal zoo animals and jamming musicians made from familiar pieces of lawn mowers and cars.
“I see things that other people don’t,” Derr said.
He saw a propane tank as a head for a little elephant that now stands under a tree in his yard, with shovel blades as ears and a garage door spring for a trunk. Her eyelashes are bicycle sprockets, and her body is an old barrel.
A rusty red giraffe and her baby stand in the front yard, the hair on their long necks made from bicycle chains. In the garden, a mini oil can is now a little green bug with wire wings.
“A lot of people see a pile of junk. I see critters,” Derr said.
Not all of the parts he uses are metal. A guitarist in the front yard has a bowling ball head, and nearly all of the people he makes wear sunglasses, so he doesn’t have to give them eyes.
Making eyes is tricky, he said, and his grandchildren think the eyes on a trombone player in his backyard band look strange.
Sometimes, he throws a pile of metal pieces onto his garage floor until he decides how he wants to use the parts. But often he’ll spot a castoff, such as the back end of a race car that now hangs in his workshop, and immediately has an idea how to use it.
The race car rear piece looks like a giant nose to Derr, and he’s thinking about making a massive head with guitars or tractor seats as ears.
Derr doesn’t start a project by deciding to make an animal and then picking a torso and legs for it. Instead, he spots an object, such as a pair of shears, and decides they look like something, in this case, rabbit ears. He builds off wherever he started, welding piece by piece.
Once parts are welded together, they’re permanently attached. So, he can’t change his mind once he’s started. Often a project will turn out far different from how he initially imagined it, he said.
He uses saws, a sanding machine and a welder in his garage. In his workshop, he
also stores buckets of metal faucet handles, shower heads, metal hand tools and iron skillets that he’ll eventually convert into people, animals and plants. He likes to tinker daily, be it fixing engines, repairing bicycles or re-imagining a piece of metal as art.
Derr’s wife, Debbie, chooses paint colors for the creations he doesn’t want to get rusty. She chose green paint for a cricket made from a pipe wrench and a mason’s trowel, he said.
But Derr leaves the paint on parts from motorcycle bodies, which serve as the torsos for several of the people he’s made.
His wife doesn’t mind if he fills the yard, and she approved his displaying artwork on the land surrounding their lakeside cabin near Brazil in Clay County. They keep his biggest project, a 9-foot-tall moose, at the cabin.
“Everything I make is her favorite,” he said.