Behind one of those white farmhouses near New Knoxville, Ohio is Gary Hovey’s workshop. It’s a converted outbuilding that rings with the chiming sound of hammers on metal, the growl of a blowtorch, and the electric cackle of a MIG welder. Hovey is a sculptor with an unusual medium. He’s traded clay and bronze for stainless steel knives, forks, and spoons – flatware that he turns into incredible, lifelike sculptures of animals and plants.
In a part of the country known for its plainness, Gary Hovey is creating some of the most unexpected art you may ever see. He refers to his work by the
“I think an artist is someone who’s adept at their skill and better than the norm,” says Hovey, one hand gripping the handle hung from the ceiling by two chains, the other holding a clamp he’s modified and repaired so many times it hardly resembles the tool he first purchased at a hardware store. “I wouldn’t call them an artist if anybody could do it.”
“I guess I’m better at turning flatware into animals than anybody else,” he laughs. The boast is not an exaggeration – Gary Hovey is known among collectors and art communities as one of the most creative sculptors currently making work. His art sells for thousands of dollars, and is displayed prominently in galleries and outdoor spaces across the country. It is visionary work, turning inert metal into physical forms that seem to pulse and flex with life.
In Hovey’s hands, knives become an eagle’s wingtips, unfurled and reaching to grip the air. Forks become tufts of gorilla hair. Spoons are bent and curled and twisted around each other so many times before finally a rose appears, its delicate petals about to reveal the trove of pollen stored inside. He’s created a litany of tools cobbled together from sundry pieces – clamps with special attachments, jigs for bending spoon handles, and clippers that cut the stainless steel into precise sections.
“He’s really good at seeing how each piece can be utilized,” says Hovey’s assistant, fellow artist Jim Perrine. “It’s kind of instinctual how he uses knives or spoons to create feathers and wings. He’s the idea guy – I’m just here to help him with some of the harder work.”
Over a 15-year career, Hovey has made hundreds of animal sculptures and he gets the flatware anywhere he can find it. When he first started, his father would send 50-pound boxes duct taped so many times that they arrived more round than box-like.
“They were so heavy,” remembers his wife, Tonnie. “The poor mail lady heaved them in here.”
Today, much of his flatware is procured from garage sales, flea markets, and catering companies looking to offload old forks and spoons.
“They would just scrap them,” he says. “People just throw this stuff away all the time – they don’t know what to do if they’ve lost part it. There’s just an abundance of flatware out there, and I don’t have to pay for it, mostly.”
He pulls out a hefty fork and hands it over.
“Some of it’s really heavy duty – you could kill a deer with that,” he laughs. “They use them once, and this is quality stuff.”
People often come to him with grandma’s silverware and ask him to make a sculpture, but Hovey points out that silver melts at a much lower temperature than stainless steel.
“You can’t weld that stuff,” he says. “It’s too soft.”
Remarkably, Hovey has done all this work while dealing with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.
“It’s affected me immensely,” he says of the disease that leaves him fatigued and shaky. “I can’t hardly move sometimes. I work a lot less than I used to.”
Diagnosed in 1994, Hovey had to leave his career as a heavy equipment operator and welder.
“He just couldn’t do the job anymore,” says Jim, who worked side-by-side with Hovey on welding jobs. Now, he helps Hovey with the heavy lifting and bending that he can’t do anymore. “That’s what motived this whole thing – he couldn’t work, couldn’t drive. And he was trying to put four kids through college.”
Instead of being a crushing burden, Hovey saw the Parkinson’s diagnosis as an opportunity to revisit an early artistic dream.
“I was about 18 when I saw an artist, John Kearney, who made sculptures out of car bumpers,” he remembers. “I told Tonnie that if I had spoons, I could probably do the same thing.”
But years passed before he acted on that intuition. Meanwhile, he worked doing maintenance as a welder. He spent three years working with bronze, but otherwise has no formal art training. Eventually, the Parkinson’s caught up to him, and he was forced to retire.
“About ten years after that I thought I’d revisit the idea I had 30 years earlier,” he says.
He started with a dog made of forks, knives, and spoons. Then he made a heron.
“Those are great birds,” he says. “They’re majestic.”
His friends agreed, encouraging him to make pieces to sell. He showed his work at local art galleries and shows.
“Pretty soon I was winning shows,” he says. “I started getting into outdoor shows, and this stuff seemed pretty durable outdoors. So, I got into making even bigger pieces.”
His work was shown in Decatur, Indiana – a small town that has invested heavily in outdoor, public art. He won a People’s Choice award at the yearly Decatur show. The next year he won again.
“The artists were getting kind of bummed that he kept winning,” jokes Jim. “There’s professional artists there – really accomplished artists – and here comes this guy making art with flatware and he keeps winning.”
The artists’ dismay gave way to admiration, and many of his fellow artists in Decatur encouraged Gary to show his pieces in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where an annual show attracts dozens of sculptors who bring their pieces for display – and hopefully for purchase.
“Public art has really turned that town around,” says Tonnie of Sioux Falls. “They have a partnership with other cities that do outdoor art. Once you get it to Sioux Falls, if another city wants it they can lease it. Gary’s art just kept moving around.”
The organizers of the Sioux Falls event liked Gary’s art so much, they purchased one of his most dramatic pieces for permanent display – a life-size bear standing on its hind legs.
While his Parkinson’s slows him down, Hovey has no plans to quit the work he clearly loves. There’s currently a year-long waiting list for work – partly because his Parkinson’s has slowed him down, but also because his art is so highly sought after.
“It’s great having Jim here,” Gary says of his assistant. “He’s an artist in his own right.”
Jim brushes off the praise. “I’m more of a craftsman,” he says. “I keep teasing Gary that he’s going to make me into an artist.”