Lockie Irons It Out
July 1, 2013
John Lockie was raised on a cattle, sheep and small grains operation in eastern Montana, between Miles City and Jordan. "It was a fairly small place and became of victim of the '80s. Really it was the market that got us," said Lockie. "Conditions were just wrong, we got hit bad a couple of times and it turned out for the worst," reported Lockie who has never given up on agriculture, and who now works for U.S. Department of Agriculture, Risk Management Agency (USDA RMA) in Billings and lives near Laurel. After stints working for the Northern Ag Network as well as serving as the front man for several cattle producer organizations, Lockie decided he wanted to travel less and stay closer to home with his son Keon, 11, daughter Brynn, 8, and wife Jana. The man who claims "welding, ranching and talking" as his skills, remains, along with his family, in the production ag sector with a few cows and some irrigated hay land on their acreage.
In addition to his day job where he specializes in the pasture and livestock insurance products of RMA, Lockie takes care of his cattle and also spends countless evenings and weekends creating and building iron artwork.
"We'd always done our own labor on the ranch, welding and fixing things on our own. I'd always been the welder of the bunch," he said. "Dad is a saddle maker and boot maker, he does all kinds of custom leatherwork for people and he was always very artistic – he builds some beautiful stuff," said John who believes his dad's creative side was passed down to him. "I've been able to start building artwork from scratch – ranch signs, business signs, lamps, light fixtures, furniture." The list is long and diverse, he said.
Twelve years ago, two years after he was married, Lockie and his father-in-law, Vic Donovan, together invested in a plasma torch. "I'm Scotch by nature and by heritage so I didn't want to spend all the money by myself," laughed Lockie. "I've used the heck out of it. He hasn't used it as much as me." Lockie said he had an idea that he wanted to do iron work and knew he had some ability to draw but other than that he was stepping out on a limb without much experience but plenty of ranch kid knowledge and willingness to work.
"I built my very first sign for my Dad's saddle shop. It's still hanging in Jordan. Someone saw it and liked it so I got an order for a ranch sign as a Christmas gift, someone saw that and it just took off from there," Lockie said.
The artist's work can be seen in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Canada, and maybe more locations. In addition he has built sofa tables, barstools, coffee tables and more. "The business just keeps expanding," he said. "I built a sign for my brother and sister-in-law in Canada and their neighbors saw it and pretty soon I was building pieces for our friends to the North."
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Lockie said that he has designed many ranch signs and other pieces of artwork from just a few basic instructions or ideas. "Some people just say, these are our brands, you figure it out, or we want a sheep and a Hereford bull, otherwise you figure it out. Those are kind of fun because I get to be creative, but there can be a lot of hours that go into the project before I ever even touch a piece of metal. None of my pieces are scanned and cutout by a computer, I think that is what makes them a little more special than some of the 'cookie cutter-type welcome signs' that you see at every truck stop and farm store."
Using his imagination to make a piece unique and special for each customer is one of Lockie's favorite aspects of the trade. "One family might raise cattle and horses but they tell me that their bucking horses are really the heart of their business, so I design something with that in mind." And his pieces aren't all horses and cows. "I've got one hanging in Oregon that has seagulls and killer whales on it, I didn't think I'd do a lot of seagulls and killer whales but you never know. There is one in Helena with a magpie sitting on an anvil."
Lockie said he has used photographs, he has googled images – there isn't an idea that he won't try. "I had some folks that wanted a sign with their stud horse wearing flowers like they win at the racetrack, I ended up building 140 jasmine flowers to go with the cutout of that specific stud horse," said Lockie.
Another memorable piece was a lamp for a friend's dad that included a cutout of the rancher horseback and his favorite dog, along with a cow that John added to the image. "I go back and forth with drawings and ideas until they get just what they want and then I start on it," he said.
He enjoyed making two indoor pieces for some ranchers near Circle, MT, that each measured about 9 feet by 5 feet. "The family had built around part of the old house and done a lot of updates, they wanted to keep the family connection so we included a scene of them moving cattle with a storm cloud on the horizon, their old barn and then a nighttime scene with a chuckwagon and a herd of cattle bedded down on the other piece. Then after I built it in pieces, I loaded it up and hauled it 250 miles to their place and installed it. There have been a lot of good times," he laughed.
Mentioning again his Scottish heritage and tendencies, Lockie said he has built himself a hydraulic press that he used to build 120 feet of personalized deck railings. "It wasn't cutout, it was all forged iron – you get the iron red hot and then change the shape into what you want it to look like." That project added yet another dimension to the pieces he had done in the past, as he fashioned each picket individually.
Lockie enjoyed the annual convention of the Artist and Blacksmith Association of North America in Rapid City, SD, during the summer of 2012. "It is a heck of a hobby, in the 100-degree heat, on newly re-tarred asphalt and you are standing by a 2,000 degree forge," he laughed, adding that he wondered for a moment why he chose iron work as his second profession.
But he learned some new ideas about the trade, such as techniques for making curves more pleasing to the eye, and also chatted with some of the more experienced blacksmiths about the business side of things. "The other folks were really friendly and helpful. I chatted with a lady from California about what she does, getting some ideas on expanding the business and possibly doing it on a more full-time basis. It is also nice to visit with others like me who are doing it part-time and trying to balance family and work, and determine how much time I can justify spending on a project and being away from my family."
That concern may become less worrisome, though, as his kids are learning the trade and helping him in the shop more regularly. "Keon has built some smaller stuff, he even sold some hooks he made at a show. He thought that was pretty cool. This is like everything in agriculture, it can be dangerous if you aren't careful, but he has learned to be very cautious and of course I oversee everything he does." Keon has also built gifts for his school teachers, Lockie said, and Brynn helps him keep track of things when he has several projects going at once. "It's nice to have the kids involved. That is how I was raised, you were involved whether you were moving cattle or sheep or helping dad in the saddle shop. I want that for my kids so they can learn a work ethic and can apply the concept of compensation for hard work."
Lockie said that although he is often doing work for family and friends, he keeps focus on the business aspect of things. "The market is what it is, there is often a lot of time involved with each piece, and I don't cut corners. I want my customers to be so tickled when they see the piece that they call up their friends and neighbors and tell them about it," he said, adding that sometimes he'll get a call from someone wanting a project done 'tomorrow' because they often don't understand the time required for a personalized piece.
"When I start pricing things I just look at the price of steel and then the consumables like grinder discs, wear and tear on my machinery, and factor in the time to design and build."
Chatting with another artist whose medium is iron, Lockie picked up a couple of points for a part-timer to think about.
1. You have to have the talent to build a piece, and a vision of what others want and will purchase.
2. You have to get your product in front of people. "There have been artists who could draw and drew a picture on the wall in cow camp but did anyone see it? Would anyone remember Charlie Russell if his art stayed in cow camp?" said Lockie.
3. Have a unique product. You can make a living at this kind of work but there are a lot of people out there doing what you want to do. "Theirs may be cheaper but my work is custom. I think that gives me a niche."
"It would be nice to do this full-time," said Lockie. "Obviously, the most important thing in my life is family. Everything else you have going on in your life is second; your family is your most important responsibility. I hope to build my artwork into something bigger but I always have in the back of my mind the old adage of a starving artist; you don't want to do that when you've got a family," he said.