BROMIDE - In this small farming community 40 miles southeast of Ada, the only business district to speak of is in Billy Joe Sandusky's back yard, and it's populated by kokopellis, pigs, bears and the occasional roadrunner.
The animals are the byproduct of a fertile imagination, uniquely rendered yard art sculptures assembled from old farming implements, car parts and other found objects. Old plow parts, rakes, wheels, gears and just about anything made of metal can become art in Sandusky's hands.
A retired farmer and rancher who spent most of his adult life working his land, Sandusky was often forced to make his own parts when his tools wore out, but his welding and forging ability soon sparked a desire to turn functional tools into works of art.
"I've always done stuff, but I was just too busy building my own plow tools and didn't have time to do the stuff I enjoyed," Sandusky, 72, said. "But after I retired, well, I do what I want to do."
A giant metal spring and a plowing tool can turn into a farm pig in Sandusky's hands, and a set of old cooling fans and old farming implements is magically transformed into giant gerber daisies. An old bicycle frame sits near his workshop, waiting to be recast as a praying mantis, and a pile of empty Freon cans will soon be assembled and find new life as a giant alligator sculpture.
"My totem pole there is made out of Freon cans," he said, pointing to a colorful sculpture of humorously rendered metal heads stacked 10 feet high.
"I've got an idea in my head now where I'm going to take smaller Freon cans together and I'm going to make me an alligator. He'll be 10 to 12 feet long. Wait until I get him painted - he'll be a real eye catcher. He'll be a mean-looking cuss."
Anything he sees at a yard sale or junkyard can become art, and Sandusky is constantly on the lookout. It doesn't have to be an old farm tool, tire patching kit or engine gear to make it into his mechanical menagerie - all he needs is a piece of sheet metal or an old water tank, and he can cut a new piece of art from it, like a father-and-son armadillo duo. The father is on his back, guzzling from a bottle of liquor.
"But that armadillo over there is a little baby - he's drinking IBC root beer because he's not big enough for the hard stuff," Sandusky said.
One of his favorite objects to create from raw metal are kokopellis. The American Indian tribes of southern Utah had a legend about a little man with a flute named Kokopelli. When Kokopelli came into a village, playing his flute, the just-planted corn crops would suddenly be four feet tall and the women would find themselves "with child."
"People love the kokopellis," he said of the sculptures, which are festooned with card-suit cutouts and show the mythical figure in action, playing his flute. "I like him because he was a fertility god and he got the women pregnant."
Although Sandusky had been creating his art for years, he remained largely unknown until two sisters from Tulsa, Ceci and Jo Anne Gillespie, happened to drive through Bromide and discovered his colorful, humorous folk art. The Gillespies had worked as art agents and brokers in the past, and felt that Sandusky's artistic ability deserved attention.
It took a few years, but Jo Anne Gillespie finally persuaded the artist to load up a truck and sell his works to the city dwellers in Tulsa.
"My sister had a storefront in Tulsa for MayFest about 10 years ago, and we talked him into bringing a truckload of stuff," Gillespie said. "Everybody thought he was crazy to spend the money for gas to go to Tulsa, but he sold probably three-quarters of it while he was unloading it."
After all this time, Sandusky is still amused at how popular his work proved to be at the annual arts festival.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I went up there and sold $1,500 worth in two hours. Couldn't even get it out of the truck fast enough - it made a believer out of me."
His most impressive current work is the giant bouquet of gerber daisies. Standing seven feet tall, the sculpture was assembled from an extraordinary list of materials. The petals are formed by old cooling fans, the pistils and other botanical parts are created by using bearing braces, alternator parts from old cars, rotary hoe teeth, railroad spikes and a trip planner, an old tool farmers used to plant evenly spaced crops.
Sandusky doesn't necessarily look for bizarre pieces to incorporate into his art - he's just looking for something that fits.
"I just have to think of something that will make it look like a flower," he said.
Near his workshop, there are enough old tools and mechanical pieces for Sandusky to create new works for the next few decades, and whenever there is an opportunity, he looks for more. Unfortunately, he has become famous among parts dealers and other patrons at farm auctions, who will sometimes try to run the bids high on him. On several occasions, he has pulled out of the bidding in these contests, leaving his competitors holding expensive pieces of rusted metal.
While other people see garbage, Sandusky is one of the rare individuals who can see beauty in anything from crank-style meat grinders to exhaust pipes.
"It's just junk," he said. "But when I get it put together, it won't be junk."Archive ID: 814041