Local artists create large, memorable sculptures
by Bradley Hartsell
Great art is sometimes hard to appreciate — especially when it’s in your own backyard.
Taking a local artist’s painting for granted is easy to do, as painting is such a fundamental art form. But it may be harder to wrap your head around a welded chair more than 6 feet tall or a metal cello that’s even taller. Things like that are imported from somewhere else — not driven from Franklin right out of the shop.
To R.L. Hughey Jr., however, it’s art, and it’s being made right outside Coweta County. Hughey is a retired mechanical engineer from Southwire and works with his partner, Debbie McNeil, to create large, original pieces of art.
It started when he opened Green Lantern Frame Shop with a friend, where, according to Hughey, a lot of artists would visit, sparking his own interest in art.
Hughey began taking art classes, finding an immediate interest in pen and ink drawing, but when pen and ink became too time consuming, Hughey discovered a natural ability with sculpture.
Fifteen years ago, McNeil was a former art teacher who had a studio in Carrollton. Hughey would come by and show her his drawings and expressed an interest in watercolor painting. The two began collaborating, and later, when Hughey retired, they were both certified in welding. Now, after all these years, the two concentrate on sculpture and stained glass, creating new and exciting pieces of art continuously.
“It was a whole different game [moving from painting to sculpture],” McNeil said. “Because I was used to 2D and sculpture is 3D.”
In recent years, Hughey and McNeil have exhibited their oversize welding projects throughout several events, including one in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Where’s My Hammer?” is the chair welded and made entirely from old tools, earning its name for the three hammerheads contained somewhere in the chair. Hughey says the chair had more than 50 different layouts until it was finished, which he says was a three-month construction process.
The chair has been exhibited from Newnan to Tennessee, winning second place in the annual Newnan-Coweta Art Association show. Don Nixon, director of the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts in Newnan, later asked Hughey to borrow the chair again, from Chattanooga, where it can be found now. The chair is joined by a welded metal cello containing the wires of a toy violin tucked inside the metal body.
The burgeoning arts scene in Coweta is well-documented, primarily its painters. But it still seems surprising when visiting the Centre and seeing a metal cello bigger than you are that plays music. You really wonder, “That came from here?”
“He’s an incredibly talented engineer. I follow his lead when it comes to sculpture,” said McNeil. “He likes rusty metal and I like colors,” she added. “So we make a pretty good team.”
“We do a variety of stuff between the two of us,” Hughey said. “She’s the lead in watercolor and painting. I’m the lead with welding. We don’t really make these things to sell, we just enjoy exhibiting.”
The duo have welded a life-sized horse made from a bicycle, which has won them first prize in the NCAA show, and an 11-foot fish, along with many fused glass pieces of art.
Brilliance just never seems like it can be right across the county line, accessible to us so easily. But yet, there’s R.L. Hughey Jr, wheeling in a metal chair or cello or horse built just down the road.
“I’ve always worked around metal,” he said. “Welding is exciting, all these different metals coming together to create something else. I love it.”
Hughey says he appreciates the feedback when they show a piece. People tell him all the time, he says, they come back to the show every year to see what they bring. Nixon proudly displays the chair and cello in the lobby of the Centre. He asked rhetorically, “Aren’t they fabulous?”