Sparks fly for her art

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Welder switched from trade to craft

For the past two years Joanne Guthrie has been crawling into corroded pipes and pressure vessels performing patchwork repairs and maintenance work on the refineries that act as the backbone of Alberta’s economy.

She’s been sent into small cramped spaces, up and down scaffolding, despite an intense fear of heights, and into some of the most corrosive environments as part of duties as a professional welder.

“I’ve done acid shutdowns, where we had to wear the big rubber suits,” she says. “It’s dangerous, you’re around sulphuric acid, acid and ammonia. It’s gross.”

That’s when she started thinking: Is this really what I want to be doing for the next 10 to 20 years?

“I mean it’s fun,” she says. “Shut downs are better than being in a shop for sure. It’s more social and you get so many new kinds of jobs to do.”

So after 15 years – six as a B pressure welder one of the highest levels in the trade – of clocking 12-hour days she decided to call it quits. But by no means did she pack up her blowtorch or anvil. Instead she set up a modest workshop in her garage.

It’s among a few remaining shelves of toys and toboggans, that she creates intricate pieces of functional art, like the red metal bike that was displayed outside Cranky’s during the Farmer’s Market last summer and the London Bridge and biplane that were featured at the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce Chair’s Dinner last month.

“Six months ago I cleaned out the garage and started doing small projects,” says Guthrie. “Since it’s been slow in the oil and gas it’s been perfect for me.”

The professional welder has shifted her focus and her talents from refinery shutdowns to custom-made metal furniture and art.

The decision couldn’t have come at a better time.

Tens of thousands have lost their jobs in Alberta, largely due to the slowdown in the oil and gas industries; unemployment in Alberta is the worst it’s been in two decades, increasing to 7.4 per cent in January 2016; and the price of oil does not seem to be rebounding any time soon, sitting below $30 per barrel mid-morning Feb. 16.

As a teenager, art was the only subject Guthrie had any interest in. Other subjects were, well, not always worth her time.

While she dabbled with paints and other materials, her medium of choice was metal.

There was something about the way you can shape and transform such a strong material; the way you can cut into it is so many different ways; and fix your mistakes relatively easily.

She remembers creating a wire sculpture for a class project. It was an open assignment, meaning you could create whatever you wanted. The result was a burgeoning love for metalwork and the decision to pursue a career in welding.

“I’m glad I went the path I did. Sometimes I look back and I think I should have wanted to become an artist and gone to art school. What was I thinking? But I just wanted to do metal, so I obviously needed to learn how to weld,” she says, explaining her teenage logic.

Guthrie doesn’t expect this latest transition to be easy by any means. The life of an artist can be just as volatile as that of an oil patch worker during an economic downturn: you never know when you’re going to get work.

But she’s up for the challenge.

After all, she’s a woman who made it in what was traditionally considered a man’s job. That wasn’t exactly a picnic either.

It took months of pounding the pavement, resumes in hand, to secure an apprenticeship. “I had a lot of ‘We don’t hire girls’,” she says. Until one day someone recognized her unwavering desire and decided to give her a chance.

The recent high school grad knew nothing about welding. Her first day on the job she asked a co-worker if she needed to wear a helmet. “I looked like such an amateur,” she recalls. Fifteen years later, she’s at the top of her trade, holding her B pressure tickets and owning her own contracting company, JSG Welding, which has since transformed into her artistic brand.

“I never wanted to be a pipeline welder,” says Guthrie, thinking back on her career as a professional welder. It was the difficulty and the prestige that appealed to her. Getting her B pressure tickets was the ultimate challenge.

The money also didn’t hurt and was ultimately the reason she stuck with it for so long. But now that work in the oil patch is drying up, she is back to her door knocking ways, in search of clients who will appreciate her creative flair for functional furniture.

“I’ve been getting calls from the guys that I worked with asking ‘What’s going on? Do you know anything? Are you working?’ That’s why I feel like it’s such a great time to really focus on what I’m doing because I have the time,” she says of the slowdown in the energy sector. “I always keep telling them maybe it’s time to get out of oil and gas. Go make solar panels or something. We’ve all got to adapt to what’s going on. We have to find other ways.”

Gurthie had started contemplating the shift before the economy took a turn for the worst last fall. She had always taken pleasure in completing ad hoc projects for friends and family, including gates for her housekeeper’s Tuscan-style home.

She knows others, still in the oil and gas industry, with similar talents. “They’re so good at what they do that they should, but some people just don’t take the leap,” she says, leaning over a stack of papers on her workbench.

Today, Guthrie is busy filling out her first call for submissions package, excited at the prospect of sharing her journey from journeyman to artist through a collection of wire sculptures, which begins with that first twisted black figure of a spider she created years ago.

“It’s a hard transition,” says Guthrie. “But this year that’s all I want to. I’m burning all bridges; I’m not renewing any tickets. I want this so badly that I’ll get it.”

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Michelle Ferguson