The Bear Facts 

Local steel artist does it the cowgirl way

I could tell you where her shop is, but then I'd have to kill you. She doesn't give out her phone number much either. Her card refers you to a post office box in Cascade, where she does not live.

If your piece takes a little longer than you were originally told, she's probably working on someone else's piece. And then there are deadlines for the shows where she exhibits. And galleries that could use a little more inventory. And she doesn't particularly want visitors. She thinks she's not especially good with people.

She's usually wearing coveralls with her face under a welding mask, but the night of this interview, it's blue jeans and a work shirt. She peers at me with striking blue-green eyes from under the brim of her signature cowboy hat. If you don't know her, on first glance she looks like someone who can kick your ass -- but that's a look you won't see for long.

She quickly breaks into a smile, and I simultaneously feel the comfort that comes with talking to a straight shooter and the naughtiness one feels at the invitation to join an adolescent conspiracy, like cutting class or smoking your first cigarette.

She greets me tonight with an embrace -- it's been awhile. And no wimpy hug hello either. She is stronger than many men, and her hands show she's been working. She's not afraid to get dirty.

We sit down to talk in her shop, a converted garage, and are surrounded by elk, horses, lizards and kokopelli flute players, all hand-cut steel sculptures she's made. It is cold, the kind of October night that says winter is lurking. She has built a fire in a wood-burning stove. She also built the stove, out of scrap metal.

"Built that wall, too," said Bear, pointing to an interior shop wall where dozens of grinders, clamps, polishers and steel disk brushes hang alongside welding equipment and hammers -- the tools of her trade.

This is Bear, Tammy McLaughlin, a 31-year-old steel sculptor. She is home-grown and proud of it. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, and with the physique of a cowgirl and a welder, she probably can kick your ass. She played college hockey.

When I ask her how her art has changed in the past seven years, since the last time I interviewed her, she laughs. "Well, it's obviously gotten more expensive and larger, more detailed."

Bear's subject matter is various, including Southwestern and Native American subjects but primarily custom-made pieces. She does interior dcor, like a recent set of intricate, interior handrails for a local attorney. She makes steel tables and steel bases for tables with shaped glass tops.

Tonight she is the beautiful bad girl, a combination of femininity, vibrancy and toughness, much like the art she creates. Steel conjures images of war production and words like hard and cold. Her job is to transform a hard, raw element into art.

Using plasma cutters, torches and wire-feed welders, Bear heat-tempers the steel, producing rich shades of maroon, gold, brown and baby blue -- color and warmth with a toughness underneath, just like the artist.

Uncompromising, she insists on making everything by hand herself, even if that makes it harder on her.

"Steel work is easily mass-produced," said Bear. "It's hard to compete. It's hard to keep up with the inventory, because everything is handmade."

Maybe that's why she is a self-proclaimed recluse.

From trashcans to treasures

When she was a girl, Bear's family owned Ace Disposal Service, so she was exposed to heavy machinery and metal from day one.

She began playing hockey at age 5 and played for club leagues until she went to high school. When she tried to join the Coronado High School men's team, she was refused. Not until her father threatened legal action (claiming that the school's refusal to include her daughter crippled her opportunities for college athletic scholarships) was she allowed to play. She played defense for two seasons at Coronado then obtained a scholarship to Boston's Northeastern University, where she played center for three seasons.

Finances forced her home after the '87-'88 season. That Christmas, she picked up an old metal trashcan lid and a torch, and quickly became intrigued by the different shapes and color changes of the metal under heat. The intrigue led to experimentation. "I made everybody [in the family] Christmas presents. That's really how I got started."

And that was it for Northeastern. "Why go back when I'd found what I really wanted to do?"

The working woman

"She's definitely an original, not derivative," said Cathy Coleman, owner of Luma, an art gallery at The Broadmoor hotel. It took Coleman, an art dealer of 19 years, a few years of meeting Bear at an annual Denver art show to get her on board. "I kept after her. I was sure that the work would show successfully, and I was right."

"She's in a position to do customizing, and everybody loves that," said Coleman. "It's appreciated when an artist is that way."

Bear travels about 30,000 miles a year, attending shows in Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Nashville -- and Las Vegas at the National Finals Rodeo. Her work appears in Aspen and at galleries in Chicago and North Carolina. She has an agent in New York.

"It's not as glamorous as people think, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm swamped," said Bear. "I've gotten to the point now where I can make what I want, whereas, years ago, I'd have to make what was popular."

"She is a cowgirl," pointed out Mimsi Milton of Might As Well Gallery in Greenwood Village shopping center. "She has horses. She does welding. She has a fresh personality, and I like that she goes by the name 'Bear.' People in art should be full of whimsy, and she is. The next time you talk to her, tell her I need more inventory."

One of Bear's early successes was a piece sold to Sylvester Stallone's interior decorator through the Flute Player Gallery on Colorado Avenue. The piece was a 5-foot-tall dancing Indian. "I never met him or anything," said Bear, "but it's still kind of neat." Hey, if the stuff's good enough for Rocky Balboa. ...

The heiress apparent?

Bear hands me a brochure featuring an 8-foot-6-inch, three-dimensional flute player she recently sculpted for the entrance to a hoity-toity Las Vegas gated community. And she has just been commissioned to sculpt an 18-by-18-foot interior mural for a local business. She is planning a mountain scene, the old Colorado Springs.

"I'd like to do more big things, scenes as opposed to small pieces." She'd also like to do architectural sculpture, akin to the work of deceased Springs artist Starr Kempf

Kempf (1917-1995) was the area's preeminent steel sculptor for decades, and Bear lived down the street from him in Cheyenne Caon. Out walking, she would see him working in his sculpture garden. "I used to stop and talk to him," she said.

Bear is no hero worshiper, rather respectful. "He made me realize how hard you have to work, because I saw him out there everyday, all day long. He was very persistent. He would work on one little section of his big thing for weeks.

"He was totally secure with himself. He did as he pleased," she mused.

One day, Bear was out walking her dog, and her dog began barking at Kempf. "He (Kempf) barked back," said Bear. "He did what crossed his mind, he acted on impulse."

Though her style is different, Bear would like to try a monumental sculpture, along the lines of Kempf's "Pendulum Clock," a wind sculpture which adorns the Plaza of the Rockies downtown.

"That he could do something and never expect to sell it, that's something I look up to."

The heiress apparent? Time, and Bear's persistence, will tell.

Andrew Gorgey teaches law to undergraduates at the UCCS College of Business. He is a deputy district attorney and a local writer.


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