Los Altos artist practices ultimate in recycling
Former surgeon finds beauty in discards
By Heather Knight
Chronicle Staff Writer
(Hardy Jones, in his backyard studio in Los Altos, holds one of his steel sculptures, called "Meow, Meow.")
Call it a new spin on the Rorschach ink blot test.
Take a couple of old tractor wrenches, a well auger, some concrete saw blades and a foundation anchor used to retrofit buildings for earthquakes. What do you see?
Hardy Jones knows most people would see "a rusting bunch of junk."
But he saw a lion. A lion with wrenches for legs, an auger for a body, saw blades for a mane and an anchor for a tail. And so the Los Altos resident welded and welded some more until he got his lion just right--so right, in fact, it'll soon watch over Loyola School in Los Altos.
"It'll be like a lion outside the British Banker's Club," said the 55-year-old married father of two, admiring his king of the jungle. "It's a friendly lion, as you can see, not aggressive unless you provoke him."
The Loyola lion belongs to a family of 300, all born of piles of old scrap metal and transformed into life-size creatures, thanks to Jones' welding abilities and rich imagination. About 30 now live at parks, restaurants and businesses around the Peninsula.
He's made dancers, angels, a golfer, Neptune, a warrior, a cheetah. And he's made them out of the unlikeliest materials: cast iron baby buggies, croquet mallets, transmission gears, a salmon spear, railroad spikes, tire chains, a swimming pool light, a pitchfork, the steering linkage from a Chevrolet. Each creation takes "a couple of days to a couple of years" and earns him "$300 to $3,000."
"This is the ultimate in recycling," he said proudly.
Jones' work can be seen in exhibitions at the Los Altos Nursery and the Burton Forge Gallery in Cambria, as well as this weekend's Los Altos Rotary Fine Art Show, which he has participated in for three years.
"His work is very original and much loved in Los Altos and the surrounding areas," said Ginny Lear, the show's artist coordinator. "When he went into the business of selling his works, people were so happy."
That business began just a few years ago--after a career in orthopedic surgery. Jones attended Harvard Medical School, completed his residency in orthopedics at Stanford University and became chair of his department at Santa Clara Kaiser.
But a serious motorcycle accident, sustained shortly before entering medical school, left him with chronic orthopedic problems. He has serious arthritis and walks with a cane. Due to the worsening pain, he retired from medicine in 1997 and converted his longtime welding hobby into a full-time career.
"It's the yin and the yang, the point and counterpoint," he said. "In surgery, everything is precise, I couldn't leave anything unfinished. In my art, things are open-ended, asymmetrical. In orthopedic surgery, people weren't too thrilled if one leg was shorter than the other."
Now, instead of wearing medical gloves and a surgeon's mask, he wears sneakers and jeans. Instead of working in a sterile hospital room, he works in the screwy, silly workshop he built in the corner of his backyard.
He built a metal sculpture reading "Reality Checkpoint" that "reminds me that it's the rest of the world that's crazy." There's his "Salvador Dali chair" that was run over and flattened by a truck and has a weird 3-D look to it. A clock hanging on his shed has all the numbers scrunched together on the bottom and reads "Whatever!"
"If I lived alone, the front yard would look like the backyard," he said. "It's a joyful world--whimsical, spontaneous."
There's a cabinet of small anvils, bolts and nuts. Piles of dumbbells and coils sit on the ground. He has five to eight pieces under way at once and keeps scraps around, even if he has no idea what they'll someday become. "An artist has to have a palette in order to paint. You don't just start out with white and go to the store each time you need green or blue," he said. "It's organized--I know where things are, but it looks a little random."
His wife, Jane Bryan-Jones, 54, a psychotherapist, said she's gotten used to the piles of junk everywhere. The couple has learned to compromise about the scraps' size and scope--believe it or not, it used to be worse, she said.
"I have had years and years and years of learning how to deal with that," she said, laughing. "I can remember when we first got married and we had a little Volkswagen bug. We'd go on vacations for the weekend and we'd come back literally with that little bug scraping the pavement and all kinds of metal pieces on top, strapped down. And we lived in a studio apartment!"
"But I want him to collect junk, I want him to have his materials on hand. And he wants me to not have to live with so much disarray that it overwhelms me. It's a good balance. If he had his way, I don't think there would be much room to walk."
Jones freely admits he's always been a bit odd and boasts about past exploits meant to embarrass his kids when they were growing up.
"I never hesitated to stop at dumpsters we drove by and climb in, even if I was wearing dinner clothes," he said.
Katie Bryan-Jones, a tobacco researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, has gotten over the embarrassment and now calls her dad her "hero."
"When you're growing up, every dad is embarrassing, but he's just so happy and doesn't care," said Bryan-Jones, 26. "He's always the most excited when people give him a piece of rusted metal--that's the best gift you could ever give him."
But usually, Jones finds the treasures on his own. Now, instead of making hospital rounds, he makes the rounds of Northern California junkyards, farms and garage sales. He sets out in his pickup truck six times a year, usually returning with 1,000 pounds of scrap metal.
"It's like when you go fishing," he said. "You don't know how many fish you'll catch or what type they'll be."
But, as it is in fishing, half the fun's in looking for a real catch. He carries brochures explaining his work so farmers and workers at junkyards won't think he's totally insane for wanting their trash. Sometimes, he gets the junk for free and sometimes, he pays according to weight.
"A lot of the old retired farmers I've met like to talk about their past and I'm real interested in hearing about it," he said. "I don't have any expectations of getting anything out of it except an enjoyable afternoon." And just maybe, a meatlocker pulley. After all, that would make a great giraffe's neck.
(Hardy Jones works on a steel sculpture called "Garden Dancer" in his backyard studio at his home in Los Altos.)