Scrap metal sculptor's life constructed from unexpected parts

Scrap metal artist Russell Baron stands with his first "whimsical" sculpture: Don Quixote and Rocinante. Photo by Lewis Pollis.

A large bird is the first to greet those who pull into the Barons’ driveway. He is not there to fight squirrels for the seeds in the birdfeeders scattered around the yard; his job is to play host.

His head and neck are made from a black rod that extends through his yellow-wheel torso to form the base of the tail, which is covered with bright red fan blades. Groups of eight horseshoes, painted yellow and black, are welded together to form skeletal wings. The colorful metallic feathers stand out against the brown brick house behind it. The creature stands in a bed of ivy, balancing the burner from an oil furnace on his head. His hollow eyes are trained on the ground in front of him, as if waiting for a friend to pop out of the dark green sea.

Behind the first bird, another, bigger creature stands at attention. A pair of thin black legs supports a body of fire engine red scrap metal. Tilting his head—a former floor scrubber with a furnace damper crest and a lawn mower piston for a nose—towards the drive, he engages the visitor with his large yellow eyes, injecting a sense of life into an inanimate object that had never aspired to anything more than cleaning kitchen tiles.

The last line of defense before reaching the side door is none other than a life-sized, metallic Don Quixote. Seated atop his trusty steed, one easily can imagine him riding off in search of an enemy windmill even though there is no gray matter beneath his hubcap sombrero.

“What’s within any human being that suddenly triggers a desire to be creative?” Russell Baron, the man who crafted the figures out of junk and scrap metal, wonders aloud. “I don’t know what it is.”

Baron, 81, is tall and broad, with strong arms and a round belly. A white, grizzly beard envelops the lower half of his face, extending up through his sideburns. His eyes twinkle behind a pair of wide, narrow-rimmed glasses.

His voice is a full-bodied baritone, deep and musical, with the pitch and timbre of a concert tuba. But instead of speaking like part of a low brass section, he wields his voice like a clarinet, talking softly and deliberately, and occasionally moving up to his higher register for a hearty laugh or a playful whistle.

Assorted pieces in a large breadth of mediums adorn the large house where Russell and his wife Lois, 75, have lived for 47 years. Nude sketches embellish the basement walls. A varnished white tree branch stands upright near the fireplace. And a half-dozen clay heads sit on the dining room radiator, patiently waiting for the day when they will be invited to eat at the table.

But the most striking pieces are the scrap metal figures that stand around the Barons’ yard. A red rectangular man whose only protruding feature is his nose kneels by the garage, throwing his hands to the sky and looking up through nonexistent eyes. An azure bird with yellow wings keeps watch over the flower gardens through a wide, white double monocle. The silhouette of an angel stands near the back door, surrounded by her red wire wings and halo.

A running bird with wide silver wings—chrome siding from a 1950’s Pontiac—is suspended for eternity mid-stride, its roller-skate feet hovering above the ground. Its head, a red bicycle seat with a cock’s comb made of sparkplugs, looks up to the sky, as though it is convinced that someday it will leap from its mount and fly with its flesh-and-blood brethren.

Just as an old bike seat would seem an unlikely candidate to someday become the head of a majestic bird, Baron is not the kind of person one would envision as the creator of these works. He is not a professional artist or designer—rather, he has spent 56 years practicing law in and around the city of Cleveland.

After joining the Cuyahoga County Bar Association, Baron became the editor of the organization’s monthly newsletter, a position in which he served for 10 years. He used the opportunity to pen a regular column. “I was quite critical of things I saw going on in the practice of law and in the judiciary,” Baron said. “I gained a following.” Having already been elected to the Board of Trustees, he was asked to run for President of the Bar. He won.

In 1993, Baron ran for judge of Cleveland Heights Municipal Court and lost by just six votes. His opponent, Lynn Toler (now the star of the television courtroom series, Divorce Court) appointed him Acting Judge when the court needs him, a position he still holds. In addition to his part-time magistracy, Baron acts as the legal guardian for clients in nursing homes and assisted living.

While Baron enjoyed drawing as a child, his artistic side laid dormant and unfocused until his thirties, when Lois convinced him to take an art class at the local Jewish Community Center.

“Like anything that we decide to do, you’re trying to fill an emptiness, an empty space in your otherwise normal routine of life,” Baron remembers. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘I gotta do something else.’ So I decided to try painting.”

But after purchasing the supplies and going to his first watercoloring class, he quickly found that the medium was not for him. In response to Baron’s dislike of the two-dimensional nature of painting, the instructor suggested he visit the clay studio in the basement.

“I just grabbed onto [clay], literally and figuratively,” Baron recalls. “I enjoyed the tactile stimulation of it, and to be able to push and shape and look at it from three different sides.”

It was the first of many mediums that Baron mastered. For several years, he spent his free evenings in the JCC’s studios, working alongside his fellow hobbyists. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he says. “It was a great escape…if you throw yourself into it, you close your mind to all of your other stuff.”

Baron does not remember why he stopped working with clay, but eventually he went in search of another medium. He found a stone-carving class taught by a retired pediatric dentist in the basement of a schoolhouse in Cleveland’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, and decided to sign up.

 “What do you have in mind when you look at a square block of stone?” he asks. “You don’t know.” Some people sketch out their ideas before they begin cutting into the rock, but not Baron: “I had no idea what the finished project was going to be. It was more like an adventure.”

His modus operandi: “Well let’s go this way a little and then you tap tap tap, tap tap tap. And you gradually begin to shape something, and the stone somehow tells you what to do… you’re looking at this thing, and you step back, ‘what have I done so far, where shall I go with it next.’”

“You can’t go back if you’ve made a mistake, because most of the time you’re chipping away and it’s little pieces, as distinguished from—oops! A big chunk falls off.”

If something goes wrong? “You shift.” With the abstract sculptural pieces he created, there is no objective right or wrong: “they’re an expression of whatever you feel.”

That’s not to say that stone carving is easy. “There’s a lot of physical effort in making these things,” Baron says. Once the sculpture starts to attain its shape, it must be smoothed with a grinding stone, a sanding machine, and hand rubbing—“dirty” work. But the end result is worth it: “You become so focused on finishing this product that you don’t mind the discomfort.”

“Finally, you stop and say, ‘God damnit, look what I did!’”

“There isn’t any stone that will be one solid color,” Baron explains. He points to a small carving on the coffee table. It is dark gray but full of clouds of near-black and streaks of lighter hues. Its shape resembles a well-worn square pillow. The creases and folds in the cushion coincide with the streaks of white.

Eventually, Baron tired of the dirtiness and physical exertion of stone carving and decided to try his hand at woodcarving. “Every new medium presents its own challenge because the raw material is different,” he said. “You have to approach it with a totally different idea of how to deal with it.”

The instructor had Baron cut off a piece of wood from a large log outside with a chainsaw, then bring it inside and remove the bark. “I’m looking at a bare piece of log from a tree,” he recalls. “Now, what do I do with this thing?” Even without knowing what the finished product would look like, he always put thought into his first move when he carved: “You approach it almost with respect because you’re gonna change it forever.”

“Part of the excitement,” Baron says, “is to take raw material and create a three-dimensional product…something that you can just look at and admire because of its grace and its form.”

Next came metalworking. Soon after Baron began to tire of woodcarving, he learned that the Cleveland Institute of Art was offering welding classes. “‘Geez, I gotta try that.’”

“It’s kind of awesome when you’re starting to deal with dangerous stuff,” Baron says. “Clay can’t hurt you. Stone, yeah it can hurt you if you drop the block on your foot…Welding, you’re dealing with flammable stuff.”

“It was terrifying,” he says. “Sparks are flying, you can’t see anything because you’ve got this big hood over your face.” The welder has to pull the eyepiece down at the exact right moment or risk being blinded by the bright light, he explains.

But the physical exertion is not the only challenge of metal sculpting: the artist must have a vision when he looks at a “mass of junk,” Baron says. “What do you see? What forms are down there that strike a note with you?”

This is an area in which Baron excels. Don Quixote, for example—Baron is reluctant to call him his favorite piece, but the famous knight was his first “whimsical” sculpture—has an old Volkswagen wheel as his torso and a milliner’s mount for his head. His arms and legs are formed from rusted gutters. He wears lawn sprinklers as epaulettes, a hubcap as a sombrero, and workgloves over his gutter-strainer hands. In his left hand, he holds a wheel-cover shield; with his right, he wields a lance made from a window awning. His horse, Rocinante, has a tomato-cage body covered in vinyl siding with a bicycle-seat head and shoetree feet.

“Once that whole area of creativity develops, you’re always looking for pieces, you’re always looking for things,” he says. “It was all there, it was just a matter of taking it and putting it together.”

Baron has never thought about why more than half of the scrap-metal creatures in his yard are birds; they are just “what the pieces lent themselves to,” he guesses. But Lois Baron disagrees.

“Russell loves birds,” she says as her husband scans the backyard, checking for guests at one of the many birdfeeders near the kitchen window. “You’ve been fascinated by birds all your life.”

 “He needed a hobby,” she remembers thinking more than 40 years ago, when she encouraged him to take classes at the JCC. “I did not even know he was artistic, how do you like that?”

Lois has treasured watching Russell progress in his artistic development. “I think his work is absolutely wonderful,” she says enthusiastically. Of his many mediums, she particularly likes his stone carvings and scrap-metal sculptures, for which she says local plumbers and guttermen donate their used parts. “Everybody gives us their junk,” she laughs. “We’re like a junkyard.”

Watching his style develop has been “fascinating,” Lois says. “Russell is not what I’d consider a whimsical person, and all this whimsy and humor came out in his art.” Once he began to embrace his artistic side, she recalls, “He was much happier. He had an outlet.”

One might expect a prominent figure in the local legal community to have been studious at a young age, with high aspirations for his future. But Russell Baron did not fit that description; just as most other people would not think to turn an old pool heater into the body of a ladybug, young Baron would have seemed an unlikely candidate to end up as President of a bar association.

When Baron was a child, his father owned a men’s clothing store on the west side of Cleveland and worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, while his mother, “a bit of a flapper,” stayed at home. He had no siblings, but he lived with his grandparents and two of his uncles—one was “a total drunk”; the other, a bookie, was the family’s chief breadwinner. His favorite in the house was his grandfather, who was the major male figure in his life.

Baron had no concept of higher education when he was young because no one in his household ever mentioned it. “Nobody ever said ‘you gotta go to college,’” he recalls. “Nobody ever said to me, ‘you know, you gotta make something out of yourself and you gotta have an education.’”

In 1948, after graduating from high school, Baron enrolled at Cleveland College, but not because he thought it was important to continue his education: “The buddies that I was hangin’ with in high school were going to college, so I signed up.” That it takes him nearly 20 seconds to remember that he had earned a Bachelor of Business Administration reveals something about his dedication to his studies. “I had no thoughts about where I’m going,” he remembers. “I had no destination in mind.”

After leaving the ceremony on the day of his college graduation in 1952, a relative asked Baron what he planned to do next. “I said, ‘I’m going to Korea…I gotta go, it’s my duty.”

“She said to me—I’ll never forget—‘Why don’t you go to law school?’

“‘What? Me? A lawyer?’

“‘You won’t go to Korea.’”

His father, who had served in World War I, turned to him and said: “’Look, you’re my only kid. Go to law school, I don’t want you to come home in a body bag.’”

“I went to law school,” Baron continues, “with no greater expectation of accomplishing anything.”

When Baron’s outlook on life changed, it was not because of money or inspiration; the sculpture of him as an erudite attorney that emerged from the scrap-metal pieces of apathy was welded with love.

“Of all the influences in my life,” he says, “God bless Lois, she certainly got me into a state of mind where I did things.”

“He finally had a purpose,” Baron’s son, Craig, interjects. “Finally you had a reason to apply yourself.”

Craig, 51, is eager to tell the story of how his parents met. When Russell was 21, he was at a cookout when the hosts realized they needed another grill. Lois, who was there as the date of one of Russell’s friends, volunteered to bring over her family’s barbecue; Russell’s car was the last one in the driveway, so the two of them went together to pick up the grill. Three years later, they were married.

“He stole her from his best friend,” he laughs. “Marv never got another chance with Lois.”

Nowadays, Baron is having trouble finding the motivation to make his whimsical sculptures.

“One of the problems with anything is that the aging process begins to interfere,” he says. “Literally welding…requires a physical stamina, because of the material you’re working with and the danger presented by the tools themselves. You gotta be damn careful.”

In addition, Baron has found a more fulfilling hobby: tutoring at local elementary schools. “You’re making an impact…on a little person’s life,” he says. Making art is something he does for himself, but in teaching a kid to read, he is helping “a young child whose life lies ahead…it’s far more important than having a good weld on a piece of metal.”

But Baron still hopes to add more characters to his backyard menagerie. “The spark is still there,” he says. The challenge is to “blow the spark into full flame again.”

He already has plans for what would be his next project, an insect with an old duckwork heating pipe for a body. He would bend old garage door springs and hold their shape with tomato cage wiring. A pair of old sailboat setters would be the tail feathers or wings and a metal rudder—“I don’t know what it is yet.” The “Duck-Sail Bug” will be propped up at an angle by six iron legs from an old table; its head will be about three feet off the ground, as though it is “leaping.” He cannot explain his ability to look at these pieces of junk and see the makings of a whimsical insect: "Maybe I should have been an entomologist," he laughs.

Baron is not sure that he would have the energy or motivation to undertake the project, but his skepticism abated somewhat as he described his vision. Talking about his insect, he said, was “inspiring” him to get to work.

“It’s just a matter of saying, ‘okay, let’s do it.’”

Lewis Pollis

A lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and a proud graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, Lewis Pollis is an Observer intern and a sophomore at Brown University. Read more on his blog:

Read More on Other
Volume 4, Issue 7, Posted 10:08 AM, 06.14.2011