Sculptures build path to taking over family farm

Mendenhall family Walt Mendenhall creates art inspired by views from his family farm.

Mendenhall returns to hometown after sculpting unusual career

By JO McINTYRE

For the Capital Press

When Walt Mendenhall was in high school, he participated in many of the same activities as other farm kids.

"FFA was a big part of my life in high school," said Mendenhall, of Willamina, Ore. "I learned how to weld through the FFA program."

Little did he know that welding would help him achieve his lifelong goal of taking over his family farm, though not the way he expected.

Mendenhall has become a well-known metal sculptor, creating works inspired by nature as well as abstract sculptures.

Scenes from his studio window or nearby are reflected in what he creates from stainless steel, bronze, copper, steel and aluminum: stalks of wheat; fir, birch and oak trees; wild iris; grapevines; cattails.

This second career came about by accident. All signs had pointed to a life as a farmer.

He's part of the Fendall family through his grandfather, who married a Fendall. Her ancestors homesteaded their claim in western Yamhill County, where Mendenhall still lives today.

But the early 1970s found him in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Arizona. In 1973, when his tour was nearly over, he saw a sculptor making trees from metal at the Arizona State Fair.

He took note of the prices and mused, "I could do that." He made and sold some pieces before he left the state. That early success made a deep impression on him.

He and his wife already had three kids, so he knew he had to do something to support them. Traditionally, family members worked in the mills to supplement the farm's income.

"I really didn't want to do that," Mendenhall said. "So I thought, maybe I can make some money with this art stuff. I went to an outdoor fair in Lake Oswego and got a big surprise. It sold enough to make me inspired to do this. But I wasn't about to give up farming."

For almost 10 years, he went to three state conventions and one national commodity convention a year and had a spot at the Artists' Village at the Oregon State Fair.

By 1986, he started to think about going full-time into sculpting and leased out the farmland.

Then, some of his children got into the act.

"They said, you need to start selling stuff off the Internet," Mendenhall said. "They built me a nice Web site. I was amazed. Right away, people started buying things from all over the United States.

"It's getting to the point where I can slow down a bit. I still will work a couple of weeks a month. I love what I'm doing, but now I want to start doing more fun things -- big outdoor sculptures -- weird stuff like 8-foot-long ants."

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