The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 30, 2006

Art parts

Retired Mapleton farmer makes art from metal parts

By Mickey Tibbits

MAPLETON — — To Dick Sonnek, that old air compressor is actually a grasshopper.

While most people think of junk as ugly, the Mapleton farmer turned artist finds inspiration in the discarded items he discovers in the scrap yard.

Old street sweeping brushes look like eyebrows to Sonnek. A rusty tractor seat emerges as butterfly wings or turkey tails.

“I’m fortunate that I have an eye for a piece that will work well to create art,” Sonnek said. “The ideas pop into my head all of a sudden.”

That’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago in Mankato during one of his routine “scrap yard fixes.” Sonnek saw what probably was once a grate but is now a tangled crushed mass and immediately announced, “a horse.”

Actually all he had was the horse’s mane. But scrounging through his endless piles of potential art parts from other forages, Sonnek came up with the other pieces for his sculpture. Just recently the 11-foot-tall, 3,000-pound horse emerged from Sonnek’s machine shed after 55 hours of work.

Two old horse-drawn hay mowers make up the horse’s frame, one a Minnesota mower and the other a John Deere. The knees were once water pumps and the hooves are formed from the tops of oxygen welding cylinders.

The different body parts of the stallion (it is anatomically correct) include a grain seeder end piece, part of an old walking plow, a pick ax head, a furnace door on hinges that opens, a 1937 Chevy rim that rotates and an engine piston. The tail is made from a cow stanchion.

Junk art specialty

This form of art is called junk art or found art, sometimes outsider art. And it is what Sonnek is talented at crafting. He can take an ordinary machine part or discarded tool and make it into an extraordinary piece of art.

While many of his pieces are whimsical animals, Sonnek also has built a number of abstract pieces. This mild-mannered creator dressed in bib overalls is quick to interpret his artwork to anyone who asks.

“I can’t draw, I’m not an artist,” he said. Sonnek’s ability to create junk art came as a surprise, even to him. He has never had an art class.

But Sonnek will admit he is creative and artistic.

Robert M. Zoller, who owns RMZ, an Edina architecture and landscape company, has purchased several of Sonnek’s pieces, including garden gates, for himself.

Zoller also brings his clients to Mapleton. “All of the people I’ve introduced to Dick over the years come away with a strong feeling of intense liking — they like him and they like what he is doing.”

Zoller, who said he is involved in the Phoenix art world, said, “Some of the things Dick does would be right at home there.”

“If he were a younger man, instead of coming into art later in life, and lived in a metro market, he would be famous by now,” Zoller said.

Vacation inspiration

Sonnek’s art career started when he and his wife, Marion, were vacationing in Texas. “I saw a fellow who was a metal artist and on the way home I said to my wife, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”

At the time he was retired and collecting antique toys. Sonnek still publishes “Dick’s Farm Toy Price Guide.”

Once home he bought a plasma cutter and began cutting silhouette designs from sheets of metal. The birds, animals and more than 50 other designs are all welded on rods, intended to be “planted” in gardens.

Sonnek soon started creating original designs. One Easter when his granddaughters, decked out in dresses and bonnets, were visiting, Sonnek had his friend Paul Schuster, a professional photographer in Minnesota Lake, shoot profiles of them.

The result was two silhouetted art pieces, Andrea with a butterfly net and Danielle holding a watering can. Both silhouettes remain popular with customers.

“I enjoy people being able to use my art as an accent piece to enhance their gardens,” Sonnek said.

He has about 75 different garden ornaments he sells through his Internet store, He also creates one-of-a-kind silhouette pieces, such as the Musicians of Bremen with a rooster, cat, dog and donkey he just finished.

Although his silhouette art sells well, what Sonnek really enjoys is creating junk art, by putting old parts and discarded items into sculptured pieces.

“Sometimes in the middle of the night I think of something I want to make and get up to sketch it so that I don’t forget,” Sonnek said.

And, he said, his artistic ability is slowly evolving so that he is not only getting better at making junk art but is able to make pieces faster.

“I really do appreciate his work,” said Rita Schoenstedt of North Mankato, who studied art in college. She has a wall sculpture, bird feeder, and both cattail and sunburst silhouette ornaments made by Sonnek.

“Because all of these things just come to him, they are all original,” she said. “He has done some very fanciful things.”

A rural gallery

Hundreds of his art pieces decorate the farm, south of Mapleton and west of Minnesota Lake. Creations peek out from behind buildings and between trees. The “gallery” is a large garden with hundreds of plants including hostas.

A large pasture near the barn contains old farm machinery as well as Sonnek’s larger pieces. One grouping has an early tribe, complete with shaman and a mother presenting her baby to the chief.

The garden nestles in a bend of the Maple River, which makes a perfect backdrop for the Sonnek’s art as well as the fences, gates and walking paths he and his wife have built.

“Marion likes to say she is the groundskeeper and I am the landscaper and designer,” Sonnek said.

“Marion actually started the garden, but Dick muscled his way in,” Zoller said.

“Garden clubs members and other people interested in gardening come to look at our gardens and the ornaments,” Sonnek said. “The place is a showroom for art.”

Sonnek enjoys people admiring his creations, standing there figuring out what the parts originally were. And, with most sculptures containing 30 to 50 pieces, it becomes a challenge.

Sonnek’s art varies in price. The silhouette patterns range from $12 to $125 and his junk art starts at $50. His larger pieces sell for $500 and up.

“He is a very modest man,” Zoller said. “He doesn’t boast about his own work. But he is very serious about his art.”

The Sonneks welcome visitors but ask that they call prior to their visit (507) 524-3275.