Morphing Metal

After a two-decade career in metal fabrication, a local retiree is turning his passion for metal into art

By Maggie Dresser
Steel sculptor Michael Sisson with his work on display at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center on Sept. 3, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A few years after Michael Sisson retired from a career as a metal fabricator that spanned more than two decades, he started getting bored. So in the spring of 2019, he bought a welder.

About eight months and 540 logged hours later, he finished a roughly 125-pound carbon steel ram sculpture, which is now on display at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center along with several other pieces.

“This is actually the first artistic thing I’ve ever done,” Sisson said. “It was really kind of shocking to me. It just went from my brain to my hands. I never drew anything out; I just started making it.”

Sisson originally intended to make a set of deer antlers for some extra cash, but after driving down U.S. Highway 200 near Thompson Falls where a bighorn sheep stopped in the middle of the road, his vision was redirected to the “Samurai Dragon Ram.”

“He sat there in front of me for 10 minutes just minding his own business right in the middle of the road,” Sisson said. “It was just such an impressive thing, and over the next few days I just started making ram horns.”

Despite having a retired painter for a mother, Sisson had never dabbled in art until last year.

In 1993, Sisson started working as an aluminum metal fabricator and eventually became a millwright, making everything from large industrial equipment to cabinets. But a few years ago, he was forced into early retirement after his tremors, a condition involving involuntary muscle contractions that cause shaking in his hands, made it impossible for him to work.

Two years after his early retirement, Sisson lost his wife to cancer.

“I was just trying to recalculate what I’d do with the rest of my life,” Sisson said. “I’ve wanted to be in Montana since I was a kid.”

With his four daughters grown and out of the house, Sisson left Athens, Tennessee for St. Regis in 2018 but has since moved to Polson, with plans to move to Bigfork in the coming weeks.

Following his move to Montana, Sisson needed a challenge to harness his energy, which led him to buy a welder. Once he started working on the ram horns, he discovered a newfound joy that tested his patience and created a focal point for him. As a goal-oriented person who could no longer work, he dedicated much of his time to the project.

“In the process of starting those horns, I had this free thinking and this flow coming out of me for art that I have never seen or felt,” Sisson said. “I wanted a challenge and the horns were a great challenge and I knew it would be because of my tremors.”

Sisson spent eight months crafting the ram horns, patiently refining every detail. He attached three metal pieces per hour on average while creating the ram horns.

“It was very time-consuming and I had to be tenacious and follow through,” he said. With the “Samurai Ram Horns” under his belt, Sisson has since made about 10 other pieces, with eight on display in the gallery. But he’s still learning the unfamiliar process of selling art and landing gallery gigs.

Before his enthusiastic response from Laura Hodge at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center, several other gallery managers in Polson and Bigfork rejected Sisson’s work and said his art “wasn’t their speed.”

Now, Sisson is building his professional collection and plans to pitch his work to other galleries across the Flathead Valley. He also hopes to tap into the ski-town market in Whitefish and build ski-themed art. While Sisson is a new artist, the ram horns created a stepping stone to an unfamiliar world that he’s working to navigate.

“It was a thorough enjoyment and it just really opened up a whole new possibility for me and a new direction for having another purpose in life,” Sisson said.

Sisson will host a “Meet the Artist” event at Bigfork Art and Cultural Center on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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