Turning scrap metal into quirky creatures
“Metalmorphosis,” the title of Allen Hampton’s show at Area 61 Gallery from May to June, could be a word to describe the artist’s whole creative process.
For 17 years, Chattanooga-based Hampton has used chop saw, forge, and welder to piece together scrap metal into figures inspired by the natural world. A fire extinguisher becomes the body of a fish. A guard for an industrial-sized fan becomes a spider’s web on a garden gate. A plow blade is the body of a spindly-armed creature.
“It surprises me,” Hampton said. “It’s a journey for me and that’s what makes it interesting.”
Look, and you can see Hampton’s work across the city. It can be found at Area 61 Gallery and the Chattanooga Market. He designed the brick sculpture of the truck on Market Street. Root Restaurant commissioned several pieces from him.
Hampton begins his process at a small scrapyard on 11th street, searching for unusual pieces of metal. He usually takes all the rebar he can find, as he uses a lot of that material.
He then returns to his workshop off Workman Road. It’s a place Hampton describes as “A junkyard with a shed roof.”
According to pictures of the space, the lot is filled with odd and ends of metal. Fire extinguishers lie in a pile. Chopped up pieces of pipe in the shape of ‘O’s, are laid out underneath the roof, where his welder also sits. Pieces of metal rest on square wooden boards. For example, one board contained a spring and two large square nuts.
These are Hampton’s “sketches.”
He’ll wander among the metal, picking up one interesting piece, pairing it with another. He fits them together, imagining what creature might emerge, testing, experimenting.
The next day, he’ll come back and work on the most promising sketch. “A lot of them get thrown back into the scrap pile,” Hampton said.
“It’s a flow,” he said. “I don’t like to completely lock myself into a concept.”
As for the art that inspires him, he terms it “outsider art,” the creations of native people, children, primitive art. “They’re not trying to sell it,” he said, adding it is “Pure expression at the moment with the materials that they have.”
Hampton was always a visual person. Growing up, he loved drawing. His father was in the military and moved to California, where Hampton took a lot of craft and art classes.
When his family moved to Tennessee, the school didn’t allow him to take any more art classes. So he took drafting. When his dad asked him what he was going to do with his life, “I told him I was probably going to go into architecture.”
After graduating from University of Tennessee Knoxville’s School of Architecture, Hampton took some time and hitchhiked through Europe. That changed his perspective. He returned, and worked at an architecture firm in Memphis for only a few months. “I couldn’t sit behind a desk,” Hampton explained. In 1982, he went out and tried to make it as an artist. A few years later he met his wife at an art show and they moved to the edge of the Cherokee National forest where they built a house and lived for 25 years.
Hampton first made pottery but it wasn’t satisfying. Turning out 20 mugs was repetitive, a trade instead of an artistic process.
In the late ‘90s, Hampton planned to go to a technical school to learn CAD. The school, however, canceled the class. “Well, I’ll just take welding,” Hampton thought. “I’ve always wanted to learning welding.” And that’s where he first started making his creations.
Eventually, the economy went bad. He felt an artist had a better economic chance of success in a city rather than isolated in the mountains. Seven years ago, he and his wife moved to Chattanooga.
He used to travel to art festivals to display his creations, but there were traveling costs. These days he sets up at the Chattanooga Market. His bread and butter there is welded words like “Chattanooga” and “Nooga.”
He’s also on Etsy and he’s done commission work, such as garden gates, balusters of staircases, figures.
As for a piece he’s most fond of, there isn’t one. He can’t identify his metal Mona Lisa. “My best piece is always the next one,” he said.
With pushing himself and “Metalmorphosizing,” if you will, as a crux of his work, then where will Hampton go next?
Hot summer days and a house that needs renovating has kept Hampton simply trying to keep up inventory by working mornings. When he does return to creating, he’ll start by looking through old sketches, making new ones, noticing what gets his attention.
“It will be my style but where I pick up, I’m not sure right now,” he said.