Rutland Scrap Yard Becomes Nirvana For Metal Artists

Sep 29, 2017

If you've driven passed Mac Equipment and Steel in Rutland recently, you've probably noticed the growing collection of statues out front.

There's a smiling metal robot, a bright blue and yellow minion, a sunflower, an oversized watering can and a modern sculpture that looks like, well, a modern sculpture.  

The art on the outside of Mac Steel reflects the growing interest among artists for what's available inside. Like most steel yards, Mac's caters to commercial and residential builders by selling new steel: beams, plates, channels, piping, that sort of thing.

But Josh Mac, the third generation of his family to run the business, says they also have a 30-acre scrap yard with mountains of used metal. 

"Is it a junk yard?" asks Mac, "Sure. But if you're an artist or a sculptor, it's like a, you know, utopia, nirvana," he says laughing.  

Glenn Campbell says "utopia" is exactly the word for Mac's scrap yard.

"Oh yeah, this is good!" he says with a hearty laugh.

Glenn Campbell owns an art foundry in West Rutland and says he loves all the history in Mac's steel yard, especially the old foundry equipment from places like Patch Wegner and the Howe Scale Company. He also likes brake drums which he says are easy and clean to melt down for use in his own foundry.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Campbell owns an art foundry in West Rutland and has been shopping at Mac Steel for years.

"For metal artists, especially if you're working in steel, this is a really cool place to be," says Campbell. "There's so much here," he says nodding at the various piles.

Old car parts and washtubs, train wheels, rusty shelving, old bicycles and piles and piles of well, who knows what.

"There's an old steam shovel over there," says Campbell, pointing.

"For metal artists, especially, this is a really cool place to be. There's so much here!" - Glenn Campbell, Campbell Plaster and Iron

"And this, right there, that's part of the history of the city," he says walking over to a pile of large rusted objects. "That's some of the old foundry equipment from Patch Wegner and the Howe Scale Company. If you know what you're looking at, it's a gorgeous pile of stuff."

Patch Wegner and Howe Scale were large industrial factories at the turn of the last century and some of Rutland's biggest employers.

A glimpse of Rutland's manufacturing past is in this pile says Glenn Campbell. Relics from the bygone days when companies like Patch Wegner and the Howe Scale Company were major employers in Rutland.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Campbell walks over to another pile of cast iron objects and points to a mound of broken radiators.

"Might as well be gold," he says nodding.

"There is a lot of phosphorus in radiators," he explains. "They're thin and brittle, so they're easy to break up and melt down." 

Campbell gets even more excited when he sees a large pile of brake drums, which he says are even easier to work with than radiators.

And how do you buy break drums?

"By the pound," says Campbell smiling.    

This scrap yard is a bit like a department store he says appreciatively. Aluminum is in one spot while copper and stainless steel are in other piles.  

"I mean it's always nice to go into a big junkyard that's not organized and look around. But this is organized, so if you're looking for aluminum, particular shapes or piles, you know where they are."

"And just getting access," says Campbell, "just being allowed, that's mammoth."

Josh Mac stands in the Rutland scrap yard his grandfather started in 1952. While he's not an artist, Mac says having someone come in who can take something old and rusty and turn it into art is amazing and something he wants to support.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Josh Mac says liability concerns have made many scrap yards leery of allowing artists to poke around.

"This is the catch-22 of having a giant scrap yard and allowing access to it," he says. But as long as visitors wear closed-toe shoes and long pants and follow the rules, Mac says he tries to be accommodating and take care of any artists who visit.

"They know what they're looking for, nine times out of 10, and they'll say 'I'm looking for something like this.' And I'll say, 'well it might be over here, or it might be over there.'"

He says he reminds people to be careful about where they step and what they grab and so far, he says it's worked.

In an overgrown section of the scrap yard, rusty cars and trucks from the 1930s and 40s perch ten feet off the ground on metal supports. Part of what Josh Mac laughingly refers to as his car forest. It's near his gallery of steam shovels he explains.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

During the warmer months, Mac says up to 25 percent of his business is now to artists, and that's growing.

"That entire truckload," he says pointing across the yard. "That 24-foot flatbed is full of material going to Salem Artworks in Salem, New York for a show."

He says he's had students and teachers from the University of Vermont, Bennington, Union and Alfred College, Rhode Island School of Design and others.

"Couple weeks ago, we had two young guys come up from some studio in Manhattan and they couldn't get access to anything in New York City," Mac says, "and they drove all the way up here to get cast iron."

Carol Driscoll, Executive Director of the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, says local artist Dave Nelson created this sculpture from materials gathered at Mac Steel.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Six miles west of Mac's is the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland. It attracts artists from all over the world.

Executive Director Carol Driscoll opens a heavy wooden door that leads to an outside space used by metal workers.

"This is our workshop," she explains. "So the material that comes from Mac Steel is brought out here and you can see there's a bunch of different shapes and sizes. It's sorted and arranged on shelves so students can start working right away with shapes they find interesting."

Driscoll says every metal workshop they run includes a trip to Mac Steel where she says the artists act like kids in a candy store.

"They love it," she says nodding.

She points artwork standing nearby made from old car parts. "The artists made it in two days out of scrap that he had found here and at Josh's facility," she says smiling.

She walks through a small nearby gallery filled with similar art.

A sculpture by Harrison Mburu that's on display at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland. Mburu made the elephant out of scrap metal from Mac Steel.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Back at Mac Steel, Josh Mac says they've created their own mini gallery outside the steel yard's entrance, something that's been a hit with passersby.

"There is not a day that goes by where somebody doesn't park out front to take pictures," Mac says. "I mean, carloads of people, carloads of kids, carloads of parents. It's phenomenal."

Mac says that while he's no artist, he loves that other people are and wants to nurture that.

"Six days a week I'm here buying scrap and selling scrap and loading and unloading trucks. And I feel like my mindset can get stale," admits Mac. "So to have someone come in and prove to me that what I'm looking at can actually become something else is super exciting."