Dawn Brandt pushes her fists together so her finger tats spell out "HIT HARD," and a tiny anvil on her left forefinger serves as a space divider between the words. Pretty much says everything. The hands themselves are sandpapery, calloused, burn-marked and masculine with strong and powerful fingers that show a few misshapen knuckles, results of oddly healed fractures from a recent crash on her Harley Roadster in Northern California. (She might've died had she not been wearing a helmet.)
She lifts her leg to show the silver dragonheads that protrude from the tips of her russet cowboy boots. They're impressive tips that'd likely inflict intense pain if put into action.
She wears a tight, sleeveless Harley Davidson T, copper-buckled leather belt and weathered jeans, a turquoise choker. Shoulder-length blonde locks under a curled-brim raffia cowboy hat. She's lithely built with colorful tats and obvious upper body strength from her work. The overall effect is Sturgis biker meets classic Southern rock, naturally fitted.
She confesses she suffers from ADD and then a five-minute conversation rabbits subject to subject, from Trump misogyny to high-school stoner parties, from her on-again, off-again boyfriend to the art of knife making. She talks of her own iron forging and the seductive and hypnotic rhythms related to the heavy pounding and the weight of the tool, and how that rhythm is her meditation, sometimes a connection to a universe bigger than her own.
"Everybody's rhythm sounds different," she says. "Because everyone's rhythm is different."
Brandt is sitting at the industrial-strength table in the kitchen of her airy warehouse work/living space, in an industrial area east of downtown Tucson.
It's an inviting balance of clean lines, negative space, found objects and art. The entire warehouse, which was a grocery store and then a paint store, is similar, but with workbenches and a variety of anvils and heavy tools, gas welding and cutting equipment, and pieces of her work. There's a bedroom off the side, bathroom in back. It's remarkably kept, what might result if you crossed a blacksmith's workshop with an artist's studio.
She's drawn to masculine things, like brass knuckles and x-rays of busted bones, Hell's Angels founder Sonny Barger and all manner of antiquated objects that rolled off assembly lines in the height of the American industrial revolution. It's in her work.
Brandt is sort of famous among old Tucson drunks and bikers, bar owners and aging scenesters, because she slung drinks for more than two decades in area taverns and clubs—from the old Dooley's and Tucson Gardens to Club Congress and the Rialto.
"Bartending is easy money," Brandt says. "You're a girl, you got boobs, you're cute; you can use that stuff that's on the outside to make a living. I did that but it wasn't who I was."
She managed to buy a house from that work. She married and divorced, too. ("Marriage is just an excuse for someone to treat you like shit," she says.) Then one day nearly four years ago she said "Screw this, I'm going to survive on things that I create with my own two hands." So that's what happened. It's your classic, late-blooming American story.
The leap of faith and confidence shows in Brandt's sculpture that greets visitors to her warehouse. It's bruiser tough and tall and communicates poise and self-assuredness like some kind of Celtic warrior, or a chessboard knight that a 100-foot man would use, or something sculptor John Chamberlain might've created. It's a three-dimensional head fabricated from hubcaps and steel mesh, and it's melted, knocked and twisted into being, and balanced atop a rusted pole and heavy steel base. Like Brandt's work, it's hardly feminine, and exists far away from any barstool.
* * * *
The language of that work is artful and devious and demands attention; and other times it's utilitarian craftsmanship with an artist's eye—it's easy to see the aesthetic allure and industrial appeal in pieces like a highly burnished chair fashioned from a gem-green automobile made when Greta Garbo was huge, complete with a copper seat, lighted headlights and blinkers. Or a freestanding stainless steel waterfall that stands around six feet, delicately carved and richly adorned with a three-dimensional, angry-eyed fish and underwater flora, finely lighted in muted colors. Or heavy mirrors fashioned from horse's yokes and living room tables made from Ford Model T or Harley parts. Or a nine-foot iron jellyfish-looking thing, a few dozen iron tentacles underneath curled to show movement, affixed to a shield with a cross, around which one might imagine one-on-one swordplay and drunks guzzling spirits from goblets.
Her shapes and blends of severe iron and mild steel create their own organic geometry. Her unrestrained eye for the colors that dominate the southwest, day and night, from rusted hues to deep blues, in translucent crystal and rock, give her work a sense of place. (There's no shortage of sacred hearts similar to those found in an old Arizona cemetery or ghost town.) This work could never rise from Tennessee, or Colorado.
Sometimes she "dreams something and wakes up to create it. I just don't have any choice, but to do this." She finds emotional responses in her work, and when she talks about it she laughs an untamed laugh, which I hear a lot. She's embarrassed to be talking about her herself, but adds, "I'm lucky enough to know this is who I am."
She tells me she learned to identify herself, and what she is, with a torch and hammer, through found objects and steel sheets. She forged a living where there was none and it's never easy to earn a living creating things when there really is no specific preexisting demand for it. She would've done it sooner had she had the confidence.
Now her metalwork is slowly becoming celebrated through word-of-mouth, here and some places around the country. She's had one gallery showing and had one Tucson Gem Show appearance and will never do either again. "Just too costly and time-consuming," she says.
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In many ways she's always reacted against her childhood.
"Look I'm 50 years old. When I grew up girls didn't weld and they didn't ride motorcycles, they weren't allowed to be one of the guys. I'm still rebelling against having to be a cute girl, I guess."
Brandt grew up on Tucson's eastside with an insurance salesman dad and homemaker mom. (she clarifies: "my mother is still awesome. She handles everything, there was never a guy handling things.") She says it was uneventful and "normal." When she was a girl she'd take things apart, from Stretch Armstrong action figures to telephones, to learn how they worked.
"All my friends were boys and I was one of the boys. I hated it when my boobs came in."
So in junior high she figured out ways to blow things up. She made pipe bombs from a recipe that involved aluminum tubes from lawn chairs and a ton of strike-anywhere matches and makeshift fuses.
Her Sahuaro High School arts teacher showed real interest in Brandt's creativity. "She was cool," Brandt says. "She let me be her teacher's assistant. There were real tools there too, a drillpress and saws ... and my dad had tools."
Brandt proved that with blonde hair and a fake ID, one can go far and she began working in bars as a teen. After graduating high school she says she did some college but, "I did the school of hard knocks instead." She was hungry but didn't exactly know what for and misplaced energy fluttered about, and self-medicated.
"If you're chasing a high when you're younger you're hungry for something," she says. "Now I'm hungry for what I do. It's this work that satisfies my hunger." After a minute, she says, "and you know, I never stop learning."
Ten years ago or so she began doing some projects, a wrought handrail here, a little fence there, a mural inside a rock club. "And I got better and better, and started getting the right tools, meeting the right people."
She looks to other women with much admiration, who've started their own businesses, like tattoo shop owner Donna Mellow or Ali Shulman Edwards who runs CEDR HR solutions.
"They're mighty in what they do," Brandt says. "Women need to support women."
She talks of her artistic inspirations, which include painter Hieronymus Bosch, naturalist sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, and glass artist Dale Chihuly, as well as those down at Tucson Metal Arts Village, and that segues into her love of biker culture, the take-no-shit philosophies. Many of her best buds are bikers. "I like bikers," she says. "You screw them over, they screw you over harder—but they're honest."
But aren't motorcycle brotherhoods all bro culture, where women are still considered second-class citizens?
"Not me," she says. "I always had their respect."
She relates Zen ideas to her world, and jokes, "When you've tried things out in the universe you can actually see how things can be hand forged."
* * * *
A few days later I'm driving her around Tucson to find examples of her work. She points things out, an awning near Columbus Avenue, a Kapala skull with wings above a Grant Road tattoo shop there, wrought-iron pieces in front of houses in a neighborhood near Tucson High, and fetching stainless steel awnings in front of Sacred Art Tattoo Studios, each hoisted above locations on Fourth Avenue and on Speedway. She's horrified to see a bent bar underneath the Fourth Avenue awning. It's not specifically designed for human interaction, it's aesthetics, and it looks as though people have suspended themselves from it.
We arrive at a sprawling ranch-style house in the rural area north of Grant Road, just west of Swan Road, and its fence is the largest scale thing Brandt's ever done. Remarkable in scope, it's around 350 feet total in length, made up of 10-foot sections. It's a blend of mild and stainless steel, with precisely cut mandala symbols gracing three entrance gates whose bottoms are festooned with pre-Columbian designs. The gates are held up by large stone-filled square pylons made from steel, and are spiked into concrete slabs. There's low-voltage lighting and an in-set mailbox. It's very Tucson, especially how it offers a kind of comfort and relaxed equilibrium. There's nothing like it anywhere.
It was surveyed, cut, erected in three months. She had help with the physical labor and also the cutting of the stainless steel mandalas. It was an insane job by even her estimation. "It was interesting to watch my body change from the physical work," she laughs.
It's a fence around a house, yes. But it shows how this woman perhaps unconsciously applies principles to her work, beyond her own perceptions—how she really does see a world that looks like it's been bashed out from steel and wrought iron, and finds the beauty in that, in hard edges that are pounded into curves, masculine into feminine. Everyone's rhythm is different.