Tucson Salvage

Dawn Brandt and her gritty lines, sacred hearts and iron he-beasts

Brian Smith
Dawn Brandt at her studio.

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 and burn-marked with strong, powerful fingers and misshapen knuckles, results of oddly healed fractures from a recent crash on her Harley Roadster in Northern California. (Her helmet saved her life.)

She lifts her leg to reveal the silver dragonheads decorating the tips of her russet cowboy boots. They'd inflict real pain if put into action. She wears a tight, sleeveless Harley Davidson T, copper-buckled leather belt and weathered jeans. A curled-brim raffia cowboy tops shoulder-length blonde locks. Brandt’s lithely built with colorful tats and obvious upper-body strength. A turquoise choker completes the ensemble. The overall effect is Sturgis biker meets classic Southern rock, naturally fitted.

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 iron forging and the seductive rhythms related to 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. How it soothes her ADD. How "Everybody's rhythm sounds different."

Brandt sits 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. Beyond the kitchen, the space (which once housed a grocery store, and, later, a paint store) is arranged with workbenches and a variety of anvils and heavy tools, gas welding gear, and pieces of her art and blacksmithing. There's a bedroom off the side, bathroom in back. It's remarkably kept.

Her work and tastes show a proclivity for the masculine: Brass knuckles and x-rays of busted bones, metallic nods to Hell's Angels founder Sonny Barger and antiquated objects that rolled off assembly lines when the American industrial revolution was humming right along.

Brandt too is famous among old Tucson drunks and bikers, bar owners and aging scenesters. 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. "You're a girl, you got boobs, you're cute,” Brandt says. “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 purchase a house from the bartending. Married and divorced, too, which left her jaded. ("Marriage is just an excuse for someone to treat you like shit.”) One day nearly four years ago she told herself she’d survive on things she created with her own two hands. So that's what happened. It’s a now-classic American entrepreneurial story.

That leap of inner-confidence shows in Brandt's Celtic warrior sculpture that greet visitors to her warehouse. He’s tough and tall and communicates poise and self-assuredness. It's a three-dimensional head fabricated from hubcaps and steel mesh, and it's melted, knocked and twisted into being, a rusted pole and heavy steel base for balance. Sculptor John Chamberlain would’ve loved to have created him. And like Brandt's work, it's hardly feminine, and exists far away from any barstool

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Sometimes her work features simple utilitarian craftsmanship with a devious or wily twist: A piece from a green automobile made in Greta Garbo’s day — complete with a copper seat, lighted headlights and blinkers — makes for an industrial-strength chair. A stainless-steel waterfall, richly adorned with angry-eyed fish and underwater flora, stands six-feet tall, lit up in muted colors. A nine-foot iron jellyfish with a shield and many curled tentacles (suggests swordfights with drunks guzzling from goblets). There’s heavy mirrors fabricated from horse yokes, living room tables of Ford Model T or Harley parts.

Her shapes and blends of severe iron and mild steel create odd geometries. But as far-off as some of her hammered-in themes may be (from bikers to sorcery to water), her eye for color gives the work a sense of place. From rusted hues to deep blues, the translucent crystals and rocks, her colors are very southwest, day or night. (And there's no shortage of sacred hearts.) Her work could never hail from, say, Tennessee, or even Colorado. She finds emotional responses in her labors too. Sometimes it’s Zen: “When you've tried things out in the universe you can actually see how things can be hand forged.” Sometimes she "dreams something and wakes up to create it,” because she has no choice. It’s the work or nothing.

Yeah, she’s nervous and embarrassed talking about herself. Her laugh is untamed. Her sentences expressive. She can talk into tangents, but rarely, if ever, do her words drag. A line of truth like, "I'm lucky enough to know this is who I am," will pass when she’s going on about the many workable glories she’s finds while garbage picking.

This is a woman who learned to self-identify with a torch and hammer, using found objects and steel sheets. She forged a living creating objects that had no preexisting commercial demands. She’d have done it sooner had she had the confidence. One gallery showing and a single Tucson Gem Show appearance was enough for her, just not worth the trouble. Her metalwork is celebrated through word-of-mouth, here and in pockets around the country.

* * * *

Brandt’s work is reaction against her uneventful and normal childhood. It was too damn uneventful and normal: “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."
She grew up on Tucson's working-class 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.") As a girl, she’d take things apart to learn how they worked, from the family telephone to her Stretch Armstrong action figure. “I was one of the boys. I hated it when my boobs came in."

Misplaced energy fluttered. By junior high Brandt was making pipe bombs from a recipe involving lawn chairs, strike-anywhere matches and makeshift fuses, and blowing shit up. Such creativity charmed her Sahuaro High School arts teacher, a big influence on Brandt’s future in metals and art. "She was cool. She let me be her teacher's assistant. There were real tools there too, a drillpress and saws." Her blonde hair and fake ID got her work in bars as a teen. She did some college after high school but chose “the school of hard knocks instead." Her drive outpaced her reach and whatever opportunities available for a Tucson tomboy born in the 1960s. So she self-medicated. "If you're chasing a high when you're younger you're hungry for something."

A decade ago she began little projects — a wrought-iron handrail here, a small-yard fence there, a mural inside a rock club. She got better at it, learned nuances, and began getting the right tools. Other Tucson women inspired her, those who’d started their own businesses, such as tattoo shop owner Donna Mellow and Ali Shulman Edwards who runs CEDR HR solutions.

"They're mighty in what they do," Brandt says. "Women need to support women."

Other inspirations include Hieronymus Bosch, sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, and glass artist Dale Chihuly, as well as those down at Tucson Metal Arts Village. Old biker culture too; its take-no-shit philosophies. Many of her best buds ride. "I like bikers," she says. "You screw them over, they screw you over harder — but they're honest."

Aren't motorcycle brotherhoods all bro culture? Where women are conspired second-class?
"Not me," she says. "I always had their respect."

* * * *

Later that week I'm driving Brandt around Tucson to see some of her work. A Kapala skull with wings above a Grant Road tattoo shop, stainless steel front awnings at two Sacred Art Tattoo locations (she’s horrified to see damage to one), decorative wrought-iron pieces in front of homes near Tucson High.

We arrive at a sprawling ranch-style house in the rural area near Grant and Swan Road. The fence surrounding the house is the largest project Brandt's done, and it’s remarkable. It's about 350 feet in length, made up of 10-foot sections. It's a blend of mild and stainless steel, featuring mandala symbols on three entrance gates and bottoms adorned with pre-Columbian designs. The gates are held up by large stone-filled square pylons made from steel and spiked into concrete slabs. There's low-voltage lighting and an in-set mailbox. Like ocotillo and mesquite, it’s both edged and relaxed in that very Tucson way. Nothing like it anywhere.

It took three months for Brandt to survey, cut and erect the fence. She had assistance, the physical labor would’ve been otherwise impossible. An insane job that made her buff. "It was interesting to watch my body change,” 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 sees a world bashed from steel and iron, hard edges into curves, masculine into feminine, feminine into masculine. How everyone's rhythm is different.

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