Wineka column: ‘The erudite redneck’ has an artful way with metal
SALISBURY — At first glance, you might guess Ray Earnhardt was prepared to go bow-hunting for deer.
And you wouldn’t be far off, considering his bushy mustache, the ponytail, the backwards ballcap, camouflage pants, sleeveless T-shirt and a tattoo going around his upper arm showing the tracks of a deer and a wolf.
“The circle of life,” he explains.
But how do you account for the artist in Earnhardt, the guy who can create a metal rendition of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Gravitation”? Or what about this man who can make a 1765 vintage rifle from scratch — lock, stock and barrel, he likes to say.
Here’s a guy who almost apologizes for making “yuppie art,” several pieces of which are for sale at Southern Spirit Gallery.
“I’m an erudite redneck,” Earnhardt explains.
He’s also a traditional blacksmith, trying to make a living by forging custom architectural ironwork.
“You don’t get to eat much, but this is what I love to do,” he says as he brings a glowing piece of metal out of his forge.
The blacksmithing comes in handy, too, for Earnhardt’s making of flintlock muzzleloaders, tools, knives and hardware, mostly from the period of the French and Indian War.
You see, Earnhardt also is a re-enactor, wrapped up in history and the way people lived around the 1750s. He takes a tomahawk in one hand and a knife in the other — he made both — and he shows how a Native American would have fought.
“If I could wear a breechcloth year round, I would,” he says.
Next he picks up the long rifle and explains how someone could have loaded and fired while on the run. Overall, he’s fascinated by the way pioneers never let anything go to waste.
The same could be said for his blacksmithing. He finds new uses for old pieces of metal, from drag hare spikes to filing cabinets.
The amazing thing behind Earnhardt’s artistry and craftsmanship is, it is all self-taught. He read books, talked to old blacksmiths and practiced.
Put another way: “It’s just stuff I learned by screwing up,” he says. “When you’re self-taught, it sticks.”
He also has been a machinist in years past, so that background helps.
Earnhardt recently set up a card table outside his shop and placed some of the things he made on it. It included the rifle and tomahawk, small tools for working on the rifle, a double-sided leather shooting pouch with a linen lining, an old-time clip or magazine for holding 50-caliber balls, a converted cow horn to hold gun powder and two pieces of his artwork.
He named a menacing, all-metal dragon’s head, “Chompa,” and a ferocious, wood-and-metal fish, “Payara.” If he were selling them, Earnhardt says, he would have to ask $3,000 for the dragon and $550 for the fish.
Both have sharp teeth forged by the blacksmith. The dragon includes an incense box inside its mouth so he’s smoking when the incense is burning.
“That looks mighty wicked to me,” he says. “I just have an eye for that kind of thing.”
Earnhardt can show visitors a whole notebook full of pictures of his creations, from map trunks to squirrel cookers. Everything, he says, is one of a kind. He recently has been combining driftwood and metal to create scenes, many of them nature scenes.
“If it looks cool to me, I want to do it,” Earnhardt says. “I really pay attention to detail, to how stuff comes out.”
Earnhardt has his own brand — a “P” with an arrow through it. The “P” stands for his nickname of “Pawtrap.” It goes back to when he had both of his thumbs caught in the jaws of a beaver trap.
His thumb joints are still swollen today.
“He is the rare artist who can take a piece of metal or driftwood and make it unique and beautiful,” says Toby Hagmaier, owner of Southern Spirit Gallery.
Earnhardt’s metal sculptures on her shop’s walls are “fantastic, and I’ve never seen two alike,” she says.
Now and then, Earnhardt drops by Southern Spirit Gallery and tells Hagmaier he has some new creations in his truck, if she wants to see them. She is impressed with his artistic talent and intellect, and she says don’t be fooled by his outward appearance.
“He can clean up real good,” Hagmaier says. “... At one point, he said, ‘I can hold up my pinky with the best of them.’ ”
Hagmaier says her sister bought one of Earnhardt’s sculptures depicting a cabin on a lake because it reminded her so much of the pond at her Vermont cabin.
Earnhardt, 52, says most people think traditional blacksmithing is just pounding away on hot metal. But he demonstrates how blacksmiths push the metal and shape it like clay, subtly turning the face of the hammer with each blow.
The whole process is essentially readjusting molecules in the metal, the scientist in Earnhardt explains. For heat, he relies on coal and an electric fan controlled by a pedal on the floor. He built the forge himself.
His shop is located off Bringle Ferry Road.
Earnhardt is divorced with two grown children, Daniel and Cayla. He says it’s hard to find a woman who can keep up with him.
“I’m looking for a good woman with a lot of money, probably about 95 years old, and with lots of land,” Earnhardt says, smiling.
Beware, ladies, he might be wearing a breechcloth.
Ray Earnhardt can be reached at 704-680-8693. Some of his artwork is for sale at Southern Spirit Gallery, 102 S. Main St., Salisbury.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.