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Al Nickelsen brings beauty to steel through his sculptures

Al Nickelsen brings beauty to steel through his sculptures.

Metal Sculptor Al Nickelsen
Al Nickelsen, a metal sculptor, shows some of his work Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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Al Nickelsen has steel in his heart and "nickel" in his name, and that’s a good thing, because he’s a metal sculptor and the artist behind Steel Nickel Designs.

While some work to beat swords into plowshares, Nickelsen is using his plasma cutter to transform wood saws into pine trees. The 68-year-old Rochesterite lives in the Kutzky Park neighborhood where he makes everything from wobbling kinetic art in the form of balancing men and tiptoeing birds to copper-backed guitar sculptures festooned with spark plugs and jack-o'-lanterns made from discarded liquid propane tanks.

“I’m a junk artist,” says Nickelsen. He takes discarded items like silverware, rusty shovels, nails and steel wool, and transforms them into unique metal sculptures. “If I see a piece of metal, I’ll look at it and all of a sudden I’ll think that can be … whatever I turn it into.”

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Though Nickelsen tested his metal as he learned welding from his mentor, Tom Bass, during the earlier years of his 38-year career at Rochester Public Utilities, his artistic metal sculpting didn’t begin until he took a welding class in 1976 at Rochester Area Vocational Technical Institute, now Rochester Community and Technical College. On the last day of class, the instructor turned students loose to create something out of the scrap metal available in the shop. Nickelsen created a small model of a steam roller out of several discarded sections of pipe and other scraps. His teacher was impressed.

All these years later, Nickelsen has held onto that first sculpture.

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Metal Sculptor Al Nickelsen
Al Nickelsen, a metal sculptor, works on a piece Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Nickelsen bought a torch from a coworker in 1977 and started making metal sculptures with his friend Al Henderson. The two called their shop, a garage in Meadow Park “Al’s Place.”

“If you had a birthday coming up, we’d make a gift,” says Nickelsen. “We were constantly giving stuff away.”

Though Nickelsen took a hiatus from his metal sculpting when his first son was born in 1979, his second wife, Nancy, took the tip money she made as a hairdresser to buy Nickelsen a welder for Christmas in 1987, and he hasn’t stopped making art since. He sold art at regional festivals and craft shows and was also a member of the Southeastern Minnesota Visual Artists co-op back when it was located in Peace Plaza.

“I had pieces that went to Japan, England and California,” he says.

In 2001, Nickelsen and his wife quit their jobs and moved to Yuma, Arizona, where they remodeled a few properties. While there, his wife, who was working at a local art center, encouraged him to submit a sculpture to the Gowan Seed Company’s Lettuce Days contest. He created an eight-foot-tall cornstalk sculpture. It was polished to look like chrome and had corn husks modeled from actual corn plants. His submission won best-in-show out of 36 artists, and he still has the plaque to prove it. He also made a large skeletal maiden using a 50-gallon drum as a skirt for a Day of the Dead celebration in Yuma.

Eventually, after another grandchild was born, Nickelsen moved back to Rochester. These days, Nickelsen sells his sculptures at Threshold Arts on South Broadway and in The Chateau.

Metal Sculptor Al Nickelsen
Sculptures on display made by Al Nickelsen, a metal sculptor, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Though Nickelsen says friends and neighbors often find discarded metal items for him to turn into art, he also looks for the building blocks of his sculptures at estate sales and garage sales. He even gets some metal from local businesses such as the used LP tanks he gets from Thorondson Oil & LP Gas Company.

Armed with his welder, torch, plasma cutter and a 100-year-old bench vice he inherited from his uncle, Nickelsen turns buckets of nails into beautiful wall hanging crosses. He transforms rebar and coat hangers into family trees that he’s given his sons.

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“I’m just a junk yard dog that likes to recycle,” he says.

Nickelsen estimates he’s created thousands of sculptures over the years. He’ll be selling some of his most recently completed sculptures at the Mayo Clinic Employee Craft Show at the Mayo Civic Center on Nov. 19 where his art will be a “steel.”

“I always dreamed of being a country western singer when I was younger, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so I took that bucket and turned it into art,” Nickelsen says. “Being able to see things that others call junk and turning them into art, that makes me happy.”

Metal Sculptor Al Nickelsen
A piece by Al Nickelsen, a metal sculptor, on display at his home Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Metal Sculptor Al Nickelsen
Al Nickelsen, a metal sculptor, shows some of his work Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at his home in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

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