Jerry Lehl turns a hobby into a lifestyle
By Eric Goold
Published Friday, June 17, 2016 3:16 pm
Artist Jerry Lehl demonstrates how he uses a cheater rod to bend the horseshoe, which is attached to a vise. Lehl sometimes heats the shoe with a torch to soften it to make bending easier.
Jerry Lehl's home is a museum for horseshoe art.
The driveway is marked by horseshoe stands that look like flowers. Wind chimes with horseshoe ends clink and clang in the breeze. Signs with letters made out of horseshoes greet visitors.
Then there's the legion of horseshoe animals all around the yard: dragonflies, armadillos, dinosaurs, Dracula birds.
That last was a creation of Lehl's imagination and may or may not be real.
"If people don't understand my art I try to interpret it for them," Lehl said. "But they can believe whatever it is. Maybe I didn't see it and they saw something else in something I made. That's their perception."
Lehl recalled a piece of horseshoe art he thought of as a beagle, but a customer picked it out specifically because she thought it resembled a bulldog.
"She thought it was a bulldog and was elated that she found one," Lehl chuckled.
Lehl and his wife Shirley originally settled in Crawford in 1991, then retired to Montrose County seven years ago.
Throughout their time in Crawford, the family developed deep roots to Delta County that still exist today.
"It was a good place to raise my kids," Lehl said. "We did a lot of shopping in Delta, the closest stores were there. The people were nice and I just got to know them. I still do as much personal business in Delta as I do in Montrose."
Lehl worked over 40 years as a rancher, doing hay work and building fences. The nature of the work led to his hobby of horseshoe art.
"I like to weld," Lehl said. "I have to stay busy. When I retired I was doing three different jobs at the same time. I can't sit still and it's fun."
Lehl has a natural work ethic and the detailed process involved with horseshoe art appeals to him.
"If it's fun and you enjoy it, do it," he said. "If it becomes more work than fun, find something else to do. If you want a hobby or doing something relaxing, when it quits being fun, do something else."
Lehl has an inventory of over 300 individual, unique pieces of art made with horseshoes as the primary media. He also incorporates railroad spikes, long nails and screws, and machine tools in some of his work.
"I use all recycled shoes, and anything metal-wise I can incorporate into it," Lehl said. "I don't do huge projects, just what I call smalls."
Lehl said the smallest of his pieces use one horseshoe while the biggest have up to 50.
He has a whole series of cowboy figures and many of the pieces reflect images and themes from the Old West.
There is a zoo full of what he calls "critters" in his backyard.
And there's also a wide variety of household products and useful items made out of horseshoes. Wine racks are popular items. Lehl makes horseshoe cup holders, napkin containers, candle holders, boot racks and all sorts of other manifestations of horseshoe efficiency.
When he is in the production phase, Lehl likes to follow one rule.
"What I try to do is make what I call one useful thing, and then one for fun," Lehl said. Usually one for fun means one of his critters.
Lehl begins the process with a concept that he will sketch out. Then he pieces together various shoes and metal pieces on a work table, envisioning the best combination of media.
Then he'll bend the shoes as necessary with a cheater bar, vise and hammers. Sometimes he'll use a torch to heat the shoes to make them easier to bend, but most of the time it's sheer physical strength that does the work.
"Right now I can still do it, in five years I don't know," he joked.
Lehl then welds and paints the finished piece.
"I try to do a little bit of each of the processes so I get a variety and it's not repetitive," Lehl said. "It's more fun that way."
Lehl said that 99 percent of his business is generated out of summer craft shows and trade fairs. He has a 17-foot enclosed trailer that is three feet deep in horseshoe art pieces that he takes to events like Pioneer Days, Deltarado Days, the Farm to Fiddle Festival, the Downtown Delta-Fest and Christmas at the rec center.
He also works on commission and is always open to new ideas for pieces.
"Whether I sell an item or not I have a great day. I've given away more of my art than I've sold," Lehl said. "I try to price it fair. I'm not a well-known artist that can charge a lot money. I don't make a lot of money, I just try to charge enough that I recuperate the cost of doing it.
"The enjoyment is in making it. And it keeps me busy. I'm like the Energizer bunny, I've got to keep going," he added.