Ken Webb of Quiet Bear Art sort of stumbled into an art career.
Webb started working with steel in high school, working for his wrestling coach in a steel fabricating shop. He wasn’t creating art, but he enjoyed the process of working with steel. “I wasn’t good in school,” Webb explained. “Disinterested. I had no idea of artistic stuff at that time.”
After a few years of steel work, he became a professional iron worker. He would use the scraps leftover from jobs to make some creative pieces. “I’d make something for me, or a family member or a friend,” said Webb. “I was making pretty good money as a steelworker at the time. It was a hobby type deal.”
After ten years, Webb began to realize he couldn’t stay at his job for another 35 years. “It was a decent job, but wasn’t too fulfilling,” he admitted. “It all came together at some point over the period of a few years that I wasn’t content and happy doing the daily grind that I saw people doing of getting up and punching the clock. … I was slowly doing more art as a side hobby and that was the direction I wanted to go. It was pretty difficult leaving a pretty secure job for something I didn’t know how to make a living at.”
The process of building a viable business took some years. “I did it slowly over time,” shared Webb. “I held onto my job and I did the hobby more and more. I started doing some art shows while I still had a job on the side until I felt secure enough. … It was kind of a scary deal, because for several years, I didn’t do just art. I did art, but I did a lot of more construction type work, such as staircases and gates to make a living. But it supported my art. Slowly over the years, I knocked that out and did more just art. It was kind of a long process.”
Originally born in Arizona and raised in New Mexico, Webb made Silverton, Colo. his home in 2001. Drawn to the small mountain town by an art show organized on the infamous Blair Street, Webb spent a week there before deciding to move to the area permanently. He’d been living in Tucson while traveling for art shows, and he enjoyed being able to play in the mountains. “I was just traveling and doing art shows in the summer,” Webb explained, citing towns such as Sante Fe and Taos for shows where he could display his work. “I just liked Silverton, so I ended up staying.”
The art scene in Silverton hooked Webb initially, but the area and its people also captured him. He’d grown up in the mountains — a different kind of mountains, he clarified — and he enjoyed the outdoors. Then there was the community. “You may not know all the people in Silverton because it’s a transient place, but you know a lot of people,” shared Webb. “You can stay still and get your art all over the world.”
It took a few years before Webb realized what he had accidentally stumbled into. “I realized that people from everywhere, from all over Europe and anywhere I can think of, have traveled to my shop. That was a complete mistake by me. It wasn’t planned that way. A couple years into it, I realized, ‘Wow, you get people from everywhere here.’”
Silverton has a busy tourist season, with the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad transporting up to 200,000 visitors yearly. With tourists and the proximity to Telluride, Durango, and Ouray, Webb stays busy with custom work and commissions. “It’s a good center location without living in LA to have enough clientele to make a living,” said Webb.
He’s found that his pieces connect with his clients. “I don’t have to push it like a used car salesman does,” shared Webb. “People either don’t like it at all, or they fall in love with it and they’re happy to exchange some money for my art. I like that. Most of the people that buy the art I’m selling are really happy. You can see in their eyes that they made a connection with it and there’s no sales involved. They want to purchase it. Those kind of people I connect on a different level with. You’re trading an object that means joy to the person who wants to buy it.”
Webb stays busy by finding inspiration from nature, his fellow artists, and just the challenge of trying something new. “I like to be challenged, but it has to be something new to me. I like to be challenged creatively, or spiritually. Trying to make something out of steel or copper that I’ve never done before. I like that ongoing challenge. Inspiration comes from all sorts of places.”
He also finds his art to be an important part of spiritual growth. “A big part of that is it can be meditative to go out to my shop and just go with the flow when I’m in a space where I can be so productive in a matter of hours. Other times, I’m disconnected and can’t figure out what I want to do. I’m sure some people write and get that, or exercise and get that, or meditate on a trampoline. Art is my avenue for a spiritual connection.”
Webb encourages other steelworkers to ask for help and get involved in the blacksmithing end of steel work. There are often state blacksmithing chapters or some sort of metal working group. “You spend a lifetime and still have a lifetime of learning to do,” said Webb. “Ask for help. Ask questions. You’ll run across people who are very very helpful and you’ll run across people who don’t want to help you at all, for whatever reason, maybe fear. But just be consistent. In the blacksmithing community, more times than not, they’re very willing to help if you just ask. Fear kept me from doing that for a long time. I kept trying to figure it out.”
And perhaps even more importantly, Webb suggests finding work that’s enjoyable. “If it’s not fun, it’s not something I want to do,” he said. “I do a lot of art shows, but not nearly as many as I did at one point, because I have my gallery that’s open six months of the year. I see more people trying to make a living out of art, and almost make it into commercial art instead of following their passion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the avenue for me. I want to do what I enjoy. I’ve run into people who aren’t doing what they enjoy. They hate it, but they’ve turned it into their job and way of making money. It’s too much work for the amount of money you’ll make. Whatever it is, if it’s not fun, do something different, whether that’s a job at IBM or an art career.”
Webb finished a show recently in November, and he has a few smaller shows in December. His next big show is in Tucson, starting January 26, with 18 days reserved to display and sell art. Follow Webb on Facebook or visit his website to see upcoming shows and more art.
This is the fourth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people of craft and passion. Contact me if you think you or someone you know has a good story.