Stromberger creates giant metal sculpture
By Ann McCreary
Soaring 15 feet in the air over the Twisp Commons Park, next to the Methow Valley Community Center, a giant metal yellow jacket has taken its place as a new and prominent landmark.
The product of many sleepless nights and hundreds of hours of planning, cutting, pounding and welding, the sculpture “is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done,” said its creator, Barry Stromberger.
A Twisp metal artist whose public artwork includes the Firefighter Memorial in Winthrop, Stromberger installed the sculpture, which he named “Beeest,” last Friday (Oct. 14).
Striking in scale and originality, the sculpture is also impressive because it was fabricated almost entirely from old cars that were pulled out of the Methow River.
The work was commissioned in 2015 through a collaboration of Methow Arts Alliance and the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (MSRF), which removed the cars from the Methow River as part of its mission of improving salmon habitat.
Methow Arts and MSRF put out a call for artists to submit ideas for creating art out of the old cars, and Stromberger got the job.
“I’ve always wanted to do a giant yellow jacket for the town of Twisp. I knew it was going to be epic, so I waited for something to come along,” he said.
Two knee replacements in the summer of 2015 set him back, and Stromberger began to have doubts about his ability to take on the project.
“I tried to back out. I didn’t think I could pull it off,” he said. “Then last spring, I rethought the process. I started thinking about what it entailed structurally, and snow load, and being way up in the air.”
In July, Stromberger began working in earnest. “Basically that’s all I’ve been doing for two-and-a-half months,” he said last week, shortly before the yellow jacket was installed.
He created a steel skeleton, or armature, for the body, which is 8 feet long and 2 feet in diameter. Then he proceeded to cover the body with pieces of cars.
MSRF arranged to deliver three cars from the river — two black ones and a yellow 1951 Plymouth — to Stromberger’s shop, the Slagworks on East County Road.
This project was not Stromberger’s first artistic encounter with the cars, which had been dumped decades ago as “Detroit riprap” along a bank of the Methow River near the North Cascades Smokejumper Base.
Several years ago, in another MSRF project, Stromberger used a torch to cut fish-shaped silhouettes out of the cars, creating art that was visible to people floating by on the river.
“We wanted to start a dialog … to raise consciousness about why we do what we do — why we take garbage out of the river,” explained Chris Johnson, MSRF executive director. In collaboration with the state Department of Natural Resources, MSRF removed about 40 cars from the riverbank over the past two years.
Stromberger went to work on the cars at his shop, “skinning” away the yellow and black metal on the hoods, fenders and doors. He cut the metal into sections with an angle grinder using metal cutoff wheels, creating pieces measuring about 3 inches by 5 inches.
“I probably went through 100 cutoff wheels,” Stromberger said.
He then pounded the metal pieces into curved shapes that he attached, one-by-one, like shingles to the yellow jacket’s skeleton, creating the wasp’s distinctive yellow and black pattern.
“It was like shingling an organic shape, like a dome,” he said.
The work of covering the wasp’s skeleton was painstaking and slow. “One day I calculated; in four hours I did 3.7 square feet. I had 35 more square feet to go. That was two solid weeks of work,” Stromberger said.
“I plugged away at the shop. This wasn’t going to get done unless I stuck to it, and it was taking forever,” he said.
Stromberger created sockets on the wasp’s skeleton to attach legs, wings and antennae to the body. He designed the 6-foot-long wings to be “lacey,” so that snow would not accumulate on them.
Stromberger also had to devise a way to make the yellow jacket fly high above the park, and make it safe from weather and humans.
He designed a pedestal made out of an old steel truck frame that is about 15 feet long. The pedestal was installed in a concrete footing encased by a piece of old metal culvert. Stromberger devised a system to bolt the yellow jacket onto the top of the pedestal.
Local engineer Fred Cooley was consulted to make sure the structure was correctly engineered for weight and weather considerations.
“l did a lot of laying awake at night,” Stromberger said. “I love doing that kind of stuff. It’s a larger version of the same kind of problem solving I do in my other work.
“To me it’s metal craft,” Stromberger added. “I still struggle with the ‘art’ thing.”
Last Friday, he hauled his creation on a flatbed trailer to the Twisp Commons Park. A crane hoisted the enormous yellow jacket into the air — where it briefly floated high above the ground — before it was lowered gently onto the top of the pedestal and bolted into place by Stromberger.
A key element of the project is a weatherproof metal box that Stromberger created and mounted on the base of the pedestal. The box will hold information for visitors about Twisp, local arts, and salmon recovery efforts.
Some historians believe Twisp got its name from a Native American word for wasp, or for the buzzing sound that wasps make.
Whether or not that’s true, Twisp’s yellow jacket will become a signature landmark for the town, predicted Amanda Jackson, Methow Arts executive director.
The high-flying sculpture is easily seen by people walking toward the Community Center or driving by on Highway 20.
“It will get visitors to stop,” Jackson said. “They’ll be driving by on the highway and say, ‘What is that?’”