He picks up the spoon he had used to stir his coffee and gives it a little twist in his massive hands.
“Everything seems to start with a spine,” Lyle Keewatin Richards says as he explains the creative process he uses to re-purpose bits and pieces of heavy metal into whimsical “beasties.”
With a beak and spine in place, it’s just a few more steps to add some eyes, a lower jaw, a few legs and maybe a set of wings. The new creation’s final form will depend on what bits and pieces Richards picks up from the collection of sockets, gears, chains, cooking utensils and parts from old bikes and small appliances he keeps in the two-story garage behind his home in Red Deer.
Currently on disability from his job as a child welfare worker, Richards says his creative instincts were rekindled a few months ago, when a friend offered him some used welding equipment.
A long-time resident of Red Deer, Richards was born in Edmonton and went to high school in Victoria, where he recalls some friendly rivalry between his shop and art instructors, who were both encouraging him to work toward a career in the areas they were teaching.
The welding instructor won out, backing his arguments with promises of paid employment in the future.
Welders weren’t in the same high demand in the 70s as they are now, and employers at the time had negative ideas about people with brown skin, says Richards, straightening out the spoon after finishing his demonstration.
He had been welding for about 10 years and was working at a welding shop in Red Deer when he had an allergic reaction to one of the metals, forcing him to leave his job and seek his fortunes on another path.
Some time before the tug-of-war between his art and shop instructors, Richards and his mother had needed help from a social services agency in Victoria. Richards says he felt at the time that he could have done a much better job himself of looking after moms and children than the worker who was supposed to be helping him and his mom.
After leaving his welding job, he enrolled in a social work program at Red Deer College, embarking on the career path that he had abandoned earlier on.
He spent a number of years working with aboriginal children in Red Deer, choosing that specialty because of his own connection with his birth mother’s family in Saskatchewan.
Although adopted and raised by white Christians, Richards was told by an elder, one of his uncles, that he “thinks like an Indian.”
Health issues got in the way again after a number of years, forcing him to take long-term disability from his job.
Then, about six months ago, he was given an opportunity to pick up some used equipment from a friend who was wrapping up his own welding career. Richards viewed the chance to acquire the equipment as an opportunity to fix a few things around the house — and was surprised at how much he had forgotten from his former trade.
He then found himself in possession of a big collection of used sockets, to which he added numerous other metal pieces suitable for welding. Not all metals lend well to welding, says Richards. But those that do can all find new life in turtles, dragons and other mythical beings created in his shop — including Margatroyd, a life-size humanoid with exhaust pipes for legs and a cone-shaped jelly sieve for a face mask.
Having now knitted together his talents as a both welder and artist, Richards exhibits his pieces at the Witch’s Ink public markets held periodically in Red Deer. While he has sold a few pieces, the beasties have functioned primarily as a creative outlet in a way that his welding and art instructors may never have imagined.