Maker Spotlight - Tim Nelsen - Metal Art and Design Visionary

Apr 30th 2024

Empire Abrasives Maker Spotlight on Tim Nelsen, a talented metal artist, sculptor, and designer

Join us in this edition of "Maker Spotlight" as we dive into the world of Tim Nelsen—a graphic designer turned metal art maestro. After a profound personal transformation, Tim embraced his passion for metal art, crafting sculptures that speak volumes of resilience and creativity. Discover how Tim transforms recycled materials into stunning pieces of art, leaving a permanent mark in the world of metal sculpture.

Where to find his work:

Onto the interview...

Tim Nelsen - metal artist forging metal for a sculpture

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in metal art/sculpture?

I’ve been a graphic designer most of my life, but I always had an interest in metal art. My wife & I moved to Bemidji MN in 2000 and they had a local sculpture walk that immediately grabbed my attention. I would check out the new pieces each season and tell myself “one of these years I really need to give this sculpture thing a try.” I came up with plenty of excuses to not start, and it wasn’t until I lost my wife to breast cancer in 2013 that I was motivated to finally get started. She was only 39 years old when she passed, and it showed me that life was way too short to keep putting things off. It took a few years to get myself together enough to where I felt like I could pursue anything, but I slowly made a transition into metal arts and have been doing it ever since.

How long have you been working with metal, and what drew you to this medium?

I’ve been working with recycled/scrap metal exclusively for about six years. I think I was drawn to the ‘permanence’ of metal work. The fact that when you’re done with a piece, you have this dimensional object that you made from other people’s junk. The recycled materials also spoke to me because I’d always been into vintage tools, hubcaps and anything with a weathered patina. It also allowed me to make much bigger pieces and be more creative than when I was making pieces using concrete.

Rumblefish - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

How would you describe your artistic style?

I’d describe it as a mixture of sculpture and graphic design. I try to be very realistic with my sculpting while adding graphic elements and plenty of detail. My work usually involves a mix of materials in their raw state along with pops of color throughout the piece.

Outside of your metalworking, what are some of your other interests or hobbies? 

I love spending time with my two daughters and our two small rescue dogs. I also try to fit in some time at my local brewery now and then.King Norway - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Process and Inspiration

Your Instagram features some complex and intricate designs – how did you develop the technical skills required?

I didn’t have many technical skills when I started. I’ve just learned as I’ve gone along, and constantly tried to get better at what I was doing. I did a lot of home improvement projects before I ever started sculpting, so I suppose some of those skills helped me along the way.

What inspires you? Are there specific themes or ideas you explore in your metal sculptures?

I’m inspired by anything and everything. That might sound sort of broad, but I really never know where the next inspiration for a piece might come from. My biggest questions for starting a piece are usually “will this be a fun project, and will it be interesting when I’m done?” That’s about it.

As far as themes, my black bear sculpture ‘Bear the Weight’ is one of the few pieces that had a theme behind it. He is covered in chains, keys and all sorts of other symbolism that were all meant to represent the ‘chains’ society had placed on them by reducing their natural habitat.

Could you walk us through your process? How do you take an idea from concept to finished sculpture?

I almost always start with sketching ideas in a notebook. From there, I usually pick a concept I like and refine it until I think I’m at a point where I can start working on the piece.

Bear the Weight sculpture and sketch - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

What are some of the main techniques and tools you use in your metalworking projects?

I use recycled/reclaimed metal, so there is usually a lot of cleaning and removing rust before I can even think of starting any project. That’s definitely the least fun part of using recycled materials.

Once that’s finished, my process is really basic. I use a cut off wheel for the majority of my sheet steel work, and I’ll occasionally use a metal shear. I have a 12” slip roller that I use to shape smaller pieces, and for larger shapes I bend the piece over an old cast iron wheel or whatever else gets the job done. I also have an Evolution metal chop saw and a Hobart plasma cutter for taking on the heavier tasks.

Action Shot - Angle Grinder Action Shot - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Looking ahead, are there any new techniques or materials you're eager to explore in your future projects?

I’d love to incorporate more copper into my work in the future. I’m also considering painting some of my pieces, but I need to get much better at it before that happens.

Do you ever incorporate found metal objects or other unique materials into your sculptures?

Yes, I love using found objects in my work. I’m really into old cast iron objects and product badges of any kind. Anything vintage with a product name on it is always a good score when I’m out collecting scrap.

Patent Pending - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Could you share some of the unique considerations or logistical challenges you face when creating large-scale sculptures?

It’s always a challenge to do larger pieces because I have a relatively small studio space. I walled off the south end of my garage, so it’s only 12’ x 24’ with 8’ ceilings and feels considerably smaller once it’s filled with equipment and materials. I also have to put some thought into how I’m going to move large pieces and load them once I’m done. The majority of the time I’m moving/loading these pieces by myself, so that’s one of the biggest challenges.

Empire Abrasives' Role

What specific Empire Abrasives products do you find most helpful in your work?

I’ve used a variety of Empire products throughout the years and I’ve never felt let down by any of them. The flap discs and cut off wheels are great quality and are standards in my studio. One of your products that I’ve just recently started using are the stripping wheels. They are absolutely fantastic at removing old paint from a pile of old metal shelving I just purchased.

Do you have a ‘go-to’ Empire Abrasives product that's essential to your work?

I couldn’t accomplish anything during the day without the flap discs or cut off wheels. They’re something I use every day of the week.

Specific Projects/Work

Could you highlight 1-2 metal sculptures you are particularly proud of? Tell us about the challenges and the satisfying moments of their creation.

The RR crossing guitar ‘This One Goes to 11’ was my first big sculpture (just over 9 ft high) so that’d probably be on my list. It represents a time when my dreams outweighed my skills, but I just jumped right in and started building it with very little planning. It was also the first piece that ever drew any sort of attention, so I remember having to do interviews which is always a challenge for me. It was purchased while on our local sculpture walk, and is a permanent piece downtown, so it’s also satisfying to drive by and see it standing on the street corner.

Goes to 11 - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen - 9 foot Guitar

How do you see your art evolving in the future, and what are some of your goals or dream projects?

I could see myself doing more whimsical, character driven work in the future. That was really my intention when I started metal work. I was a huge fan of Patrick Amiot’s work because it was fun and slightly crazy. I’m not quite sure how I ended up concentrating on animals and such for so long!

Do you have any works in progress, upcoming exhibitions, commissions, or other projects you'd like to promote?

I have a full size Great Dane commission that I’m working on at the moment.

He should be completed by July and will be a surprise birthday present for a woman’s husband. I’ll also have 10 pieces on public sculpture walks throughout MN, SD and WI starting in May.

Great Dane Head - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Advice and Community:

What inspired you to start sharing your work on social media, and how has the platform helped grow your following and exposure?

I originally started posting on Instagram to see what people thought of my work and to see what other artists were doing. I was only making wall art in the early years, but I was blown away and inspired by the amazing metal artists I’d see. I’ve made a lot of good friends through social media and my work has slowly gained more exposure over the years too, so it’s been a fun experience.

How would you describe the current metal art scene? Is it supportive, competitive, or a mix of both?

Instagram has been an incredibly supportive place as a metal artist. The majority of people are willing to share tips, techniques and advice to help you get better at your craft. It’s a great place to get feedback on your work and to appreciate artists of all mediums.

Sprocket - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Are there any trends in metal art that you find exciting?

It seems like a lot of artists out there are starting to use CNC technology to help create their work. I don’t know if I’d call that exciting, but it sure looks better than cutting things by hand!

What advice would you give to other artists or makers who are considering working with metal or similar materials?

Just do it. I came up with all kinds of reasons why I couldn’t or shouldn’t start sculpting and I wish I would’ve taken the plunge much sooner. Just get started!

Are there other metal sculptors or resources you find inspiring within the community?

There are so many artists out there whose work I admire, but if I had to name one guy that’s sort of taken the scrap metal scene by storm in the last few years it’s Nigerian sculptor Dotun Popoola. I think if you’re a scrap artist, or any type of sculptor, you can’t help but be inspired by his amazing work, his love for the craft and his constant positive energy. The guy is a force of nature who loves what he’s doing and is at the top of his game, so he’s a fun artist to follow.

Mycology Manor - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

We hope you've enjoyed this dive into Tim Nelsen's artistic world. His story is a testament to the resilience and transformative power of creativity. Continue to follow Tim's journey and his latest sculptural endeavors by visiting his website or following him on Instagram.

Thank you, Tim, for allowing us to share your remarkable talent with our community.

Riverdale - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Walter - Upcycled/Recycled Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Farmhouse Fish - Metal Art by Tim Nelsen

Mechanical Guppy - Metal Art by Tim Nelsen