MISSOULA- It’s hard to see anything artistic in a rusty piece of metal but for Joel Isaacs, a metal artist in Missoula, this is all he sees.
Since 2016, Joel Isaacs has worked as a full-time artist, using recycled metal to create layered pieces of art.
Isaacs’ career used to be in graphic design, creating advertisements for local companies like VANS Electronics.
After a few years in the business, he realized he didn’t enjoy it.
So, as a side hobby, he started buying welding and metal cutting tools, like a plasma torch.
His first cuts were on 55 gallon barrels, all recycled.
That turned into making custom burn barrels for people in the community, carving names and simple designs into the side.
“It was just a hobby. It was like beer money,” he says.
Isaacs didn’t have any background in welding, though he always found it interesting.
He taught himself almost everything he knows, apart from a few basic welding classes.
“I just bought a tool and learned how to use it. It was pretty easy,” he says.
His first piece of artwork, created from the same 55 gallon barrels, was a birthday gift for a friend.
He loved the process of creating the piece, so he made more.
For the next few years, Isaacs sold his work at the People’s Market and other art fairs in Missoula.
He stuck with it because he loved it and was soon displaying his work in local businesses.
“I was able to connect with a lot of customers just by displaying artwork passively through breweries and coffee shops and all the rest,” he says.
By 2016, Isaacs was successful enough to quit his day job and work on his art full time, all with the support of his wife.
“I just sort of fell into it. Didn’t expect to do it at all.”
Today, Isaacs focuses on commissioned work and posting to social media.
Isaacs rarely buys new pieces of metal, preferring to recycle chunks that were heading for the trash.
He loves when the metal has a natural rust or coloring, called patina.
“This material has a lot of history. It’s been sitting out for 20, 50 years. Maybe more,” he says. “You can’t replicate old metal. You just can’t.”
Isaacs finds a lot of metal on the side of the road and at garage sales or antique markets, but since his success in Missoula, he often gets calls from homeowners looking to move or get rid of large amounts of old metal.
“It was just trash on the floor, you know? Just scrap metal worth nothing,” he says. “And it can make a beautiful piece of art that will go in a home that a family will love, or a law office will love in their reception area, or whatever.”
He still prefers 55 gallon barrels, but has since started to integrate all types of metal, from old saw blades to chains.
There is no solid technique for his work. Isaacs likes to wing it — doing most of his designs freehand without much planning.
It is a process he finds that creates the best, most unique pieces.
“I just kind of follow the rhythm, obviously like, this is a one-off, I can’t make that again if I wanted to,” he says.
Unless he is doing a design for the first time or the client wants a specific mountain range, he can make the piece as he goes.
He starts by cutting apart his barrels into strips, then bending them flat.
Isaacs then starts to work on his design, typically cutting a tree line or mountains — scenes loved by Montanans.
He likes to use the metal’s natural colors, but sometimes he will hydro-dip the separate pieces to add more texture.
He also adds texture and variability by sanding down edges and paint.
After the pieces are cut and colored how he likes them, he begins to layer them on top of each other, creating the scene.
He uses a plasma torch to securely weld the pieces together.
Once the pieces are layered together, he brings them back to the plasma cutter, carving out the outline, whether that’s a fish or the state of Montana.
After attaching hanging hardware to the back, the piece is close to finished.
If he wants a bit more color, he’ll spray the piece with an oxidizer to create that rust look in a short amount of time.
Isaacs has created a career he can be happy in, but he truly believes anyone can do the same with hard work and dedication.
“My biggest lesson is hard work pays off. That’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned,” he says.“If you put your mind to anything, you’re probably going to pull it off.”
While the tools he uses today are expensive, he says he started off with small purchases, one at a time.
He bought cheap or used tools to sustain his work and put the money he made on the art back into his workshop.
He encourages others with a dream to sell art or start a business to start the same way — with baby steps.
Obstacles are inevitable, he says, but it’s important to keep moving forward.
“I’ve been defeated in here plenty of times. But don’t let that get you,” he says.
Isaacs also welds frames for river rafts, but his main focus is creating artwork.