Aztec artist remakes scrap metal into sculpture

James Fenton
Don Hammontree, 75, of Aztec, works on his next piece, which will be a coffee table, on Wednesday at his home in Aztec.

AZTEC – Retired coal miner and oilfield worker Don Hammontree likes to take other people's scrap and turn it into colorful splendor.

Hammontree, 75, is a blacksmith and retired farrier, and is familiar with all manner of welding and metal fabrication. He and his wife, Tammy Cleveland, met in Wyoming when they both worked at a coal mine.

Searching for warmer climes, the couple settled in Aztec about 16 years ago, and Hammontree acknowledged that he has made their Maddox Avenue home and yard into a kind of whimsical museum for his creative output over the last decade. He creates sculptures, wall hangings, furniture, mobiles and water features using materials he is given or finds, or purchases at a scrap yard in Cortez, Colo.

Friend Jim Coury said Hammontree's work, especially his 4-foot-long fish mobiles, are what amaze him.

Hammontree fashions his large-scale fish in sections. Each one is weighted uniquely so that, once the piece is assembled, the fish hangs from rods and fishing wire, and undulates or "swims" in the air when it catches a breeze. Hammontree makes his mobiles out of materials and with tools he has used mostly as a blacksmith and farrier — scrap metal, rasps, a plethora of metal parts, rods, pipe fittings and tubes. He puts them together with automotive body filler, paint, clay and other materials with the help of metal cutters, nippers, hammers and a blowtorch.

The only parts of the mobile he doesn't actually make himself are the fish's lifelike glass eyes that he buys from a taxidermist online. He used to hand paint each scale on his floating fish mobiles, but he discovered taxidermists use a roller with scales imprinted on them. So he uses one of those now, impressing the scales on the piece in automotive body filler. Each fish is finished after he paints the scales and covers the body with a weatherproof coating.

Don Hammontree, 75, of Aztec, describes how he constructed one of his metal fish to move in the wind on Wednesday at his home in Aztec.

Coury owns one of Hammontree's fish mobiles and has it hanging outside his Bloomfield home, which he said is a wonder to watch when it sways in the breeze.

"He's incredible," Coury said. "I can't believe the things he'll make. When I go over to his place, it's something new every time. Don's always busy."

Hammontree said he started working with scrap metal and other industrial materials to fashion colorful works of art 12 years ago at a horseshoeing convention in Denver. At the convention, he saw a rose someone there had made out of scrap metal.

"I thought, 'That looks neat. Gee, I could try making one of those.' And I went home and did," he said. "That led to more flowers, a calla lily, others."

He knew he was onto something when he tried to make an iris and ended up producing 16 of them before he got it "just right," he said.

Cleveland said her husband is far too attached to his pieces to relinquish many of them.

"They're like his children," she said.

Hammontree has shown his sculptures and fine art work at various galleries in Aztec and Albuquerque, but prefers to make his home a showroom for his work. He is reluctant to show his work or part with it, but he ends up selling some of the work that his wife's clients see at her office or to friends.

He's currently making a coffee table supported by the trunk and branches of a sculpted gnome's house, he said. He has made scrap metal fabricated trees for coffee tables, lamps and wall hangings. He is also working on an elaborate water feature in his backyard using three buckets full of pipe fittings someone gave him.

He said creating things is simply a matter of taking one piece and seeing whether it will fit with another and repeating the process until something satisfying emerges.

Don Hammontree, 75, of Aztec, shows off a few of his sculptures inside his home on Wednesday.

Even the couple's refrigerator is ornamented and given a large personality. Hammontree fashioned baling wire across the top for hair and created eyes out of sheet metal painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, one for each of the appliance's side-by-side doors.

"We call him Mr. LG," he said, chuckling and pointing to the tiny LG brand logo on the fridge.

Tammy Cleveland's Farmington accounting office serves as an unofficial showroom annex for her husband's sculptures and art pieces. She has a fish mobile hung from the ceiling she keeps in constant motion with the help of an oscillating fan.

He said he figures it takes about 120 hours, or about a month, to make each mobile, though it's hard to gauge, since he is constantly working on several projects simultaneously.

"I see something somewhere, and I go start on trying to do it," he said. "Sometimes it works or sometimes not."

This summer, Hammontree enhanced his front and back yards with fencing he hand fabricated. The top edge of the fence has leafy grape vines he fashioned out of various metals and bendable metal rods. The leaves and flowers, made of brass, are hand cut and oxidized to bring out the rich orange-red color. The flowers are given the finishing touch with a glass bead at the center.

"I do something I really like to do. Never took a class or learned how from a book," he said. "It's a never-ending project."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.