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On a small hill overlooking MT Highway 206 is a warhorse made of 200 chrome bumpers. It stands 11 feet tall and 12 feet long, tipping the scales at about one ton.
Last week, its surface, made up of hundreds of pieces of old car bumpers, reflected the golden fields and dark, angry sky nearby. It is a powerful sight, and will only intensify once massive wings are attached to the creature’s back.
Looking at this horse up close, with its individual pieces reflecting myriad different angles, is like talking to its creator, artist Sean Guerrero. The conversation takes unexpected turns, like last week when he transitioned from discussing how working in the Flathead affects his creativity to chatting about the time Neil Young called him in France.
Guerrero wears an outfit that wouldn’t distinguish him from anyone else at the feed supply store: dark gray work pants; a pair of dusty, worn, heavy black boots; a tan hat; and a hay-colored Carhartt shirt that holds up well under the playful bites from his 125-pound Alaskan malamute, Nemo.
His small workshop, situated off Highway 206 east of Kalispell, leaks air and light through cracks in the ceiling and walls. He’s working to fortify it against the oncoming winter, since the wood stove only kept the room at a cool 45 degrees last year.
The warhorse is the first large piece he’s created in the small shop since moving here from Colorado last October. Guerrero takes a look at the start of his insulation hanging from the ceiling, straining to rebuff the breeze of an oncoming storm.
“Apparently a lot of old farmers were against insulation,” he says.
The body of the creature is modeled after a horse Leonardo da Vinci had planned on creating, “Il Cavallo.” Guerrero has postcards of da Vinci’s plans for a horse’s musculature taped up in his workshop.
Crafting something so large was a considerable undertaking in his small shop. Guerrero worried about not having enough space in the small shop to assess the horse’s proportion, but his worries turned out unfounded.
To build the horse, Guerrero started with a metal base propped from the floor, to which he began attaching hand-cut pieces of chrome bumpers he bought in Denver. First he shaped the head, then the neck, working his way down through the torso and the legs.
Once he approved of the general shape and position, Guerrero added muscles and other details. With so much weight on the front of the horse, he said he has to make sure the back is especially strong. The metal base and other propping mechanisms were removed once the piece was finished.
His work has been the subject of various media articles, including the Colorado Central Magazine, which called his pieces “larger than life,” and the Discovery Channel, which featured his chrome animals on the program “Modern Marvels.”
When Guerrero, 53, tells stories about his artistic endeavors, they usually have a common thread in describing how his art has opened up opportunities to connect with people and travel to new places.
He grew up in a suburb of Denver, where he spent most of his time exploring the empty fields next to the development. At that time, people still dumped their garbage in the field, Guerrero said, and he sorted through the trash to find treasure.
Initially, Guerrero tried sticking together various pieces of junk with modeling glue, but they would fall apart. Then, when he was 13, Guerrero met a neighbor with an acetylene torch. The idea of fusing metal objects fascinated him – “I can stick whatever I want together and it won’t break,” Guerrero said. He had his own torch by age 16.
At 19, Guerrero found that he liked the way welding created dark lines on chrome car bumpers. He began crafting small pieces in 1980 and business took off after he was invited to a show in Beverly Hills, where he was “overwhelmed” by the response to his work.
All his pieces sold.
Movie stars, such as Jack Palance, and politicians began commissioning pieces. Guerrero attributes his success to tapping into a deeply rooted instinct found in both humans and animals.
“People like shiny objects,” he said. “It’s like a fishing lure; the bigger the lure, the bigger the fish you can catch.”
Guerrero continued to make trips to California from Denver for about another eight or nine years before he tired of it, realizing that the Hollywood lifestyle wasn’t one he wanted for himself.
He opened a shop in Crested Butte, a Colorado town known for its outdoor activities and particularly brutal winters. Then he went on a trip that started in Paris, France, and ended up with Guerrero buying an old French farmhouse.
The farmhouse provided respite from harsh winters, and Guerrero spent nine years fixing it up before selling it three-and-a-half years ago.
Now, renting a Montana farmhouse on his sister’s land to be closer to his father, Guerrero says the solitude increases his productivity.
Sitting in Guerrero’s shop is a new breed of horse. Instead of lustrous chrome, its flanks are made of rusty scrap metal he found while walking the farm property; its legs are old pieces of wood. It is undeniably a horse, but it’s also new direction Guerrero is pursuing since moving here.
“If you’re not experimenting all the time,” he says, “you just get stagnant.”
Like most artists, Guerrero’s work has gone through phases. There were science fiction-inspired pieces, one of which was a 40-foot-long spaceship made of junk metal that “started out as a chair.”
He also has a barn housing what he refers to as his “wacky” pieces, a garden of abstract metal creations with no instantly recognizable shapes and names such as “What Is It?”
His chrome animals, specifically the horses and eagles, remain his most popular works, though his zoo of gleaming sculptures also includes a dragon, bears, deer, bighorn sheep, elk and more.
Guerrero has also captured some of his travels and creations on film, making movies documenting his experiences.
On the walls of his shop hang several buffalo skulls welded from scrap metal. These are also popular. One of these skulls, crafted from car parts he got from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation several years ago, ended up backstage at a Neil Young concert as a gift to the rocker.
A few days after the skull was delivered, Guerrero said he got a call at his French farmhouse from Young, thanking him for the creation. It ended up as a guitar-holder on stage, Guerrero said, instead of being welded to the tour bus.
He has other stories of meeting celebrities by chance – a series of events he says would not be possible without his art starting the conversation.
After seeing Guerrero’s work on the Discovery Channel, a client in Georgia commissioned the artist to create the warhorse that currently guards the farmhouse near Columbia Falls.
Once the wings are attached in a couple of weeks, the horse will be gone. His next project will likely be an eagle.
“In the end, it’s never really yours,” Guerrero says, recalling the French farmhouse while absentmindedly fiddling with a rusty piece of steel he picked up from the grass. “It’s just something you pass on.”
For more information on Sean Guerrero, visit www.chromesean.com.
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