Cleveland man who works in scrap steel makes beautiful art in city's Waterloo Art District

From the junk yard to the artist's studio
Posted at 6:18 PM, May 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-19 18:18:46-04

He is an artist who is surrounded by thousands of pounds of metal junk. Eventually, the pieces of rusted steel beams, sprockets, barbed wire, fences, and bedposts will be turned into art, which may end up in the lobbies of hospitals, offices and gardens.

Jerry Schmidt is in love with steel, especially the pieces which have been tossed out and deemed no longer of value. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Schmidt finds a beauty in the discarded pieces of metal.

On Waterloo Road in the North Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, the heavy sound of his hammer falling on a piece of steel echoes through the open doors of his garage-turned-studio. 

Art everywhere

Along the thoroughfare are pieces of Schmidt's art. They accent the colorful paintings and highly-decorated buildings.

The area is the Waterloo Artist District, which is a yellow brick road for Cleveland artists. Schmidt's steel sculptures, some of them 20 feet high, give a feeling of strength to the area. In front of his studio are more than a dozen Schmidt sculptures.

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One depicts a 10-foot-tall light switch and wall plate. It bears no title; just the sculptor's name. 

"The pieces I create are untitled because I want people to look at them and I want to hear what they have so say about the piece," said Schmidt.

The artwork of the steel sculptor draws good reviews. 

"If you go up and down Waterloo in North Collinwood, as far as he is concerned, his art is everywhere," said Bob DiLiberto, an electrician friend who has put lights inside some of Schmidt's metal works. "He lights up the whole neighborhood."

From father to son

Schmidt, 57, learned how to take scrap steel and turn it into art from his father, Fred. As did his late father, Jerry left years of work as an ironworker to devote himself full-time to steel sculptor. Fred Schmidt had a passion for the metal and has passed that same passion into his son. 

"I love to take some raw ugly thing that somebody would discard and I create and recreate," said Schmidt, his arms flailing to emphasize his words.

In describing his works, some of which he was commissioned by various businesses to make, Schmidt is continually moving his arms around his head as if he is touching a piece of steel. He seems to be able to "see" something in a rusted beam that is trying to get out so the steel can be used again.  

"I call all the pieces my orphaned children," he said.

Indeed, he seems to love the steel, regardless of whether it sits in a pile waiting to be shaped into something beautiful, or is a finished piece of art.  

"He's an industrial romantic so he loves old warehouses," said Steve Simmons, an artist who uses fiberglass and who often adds his artistic touches to a Schmidt sculpture. "He loves metal; he loves steel."

New generations

Sometimes helping Schmidt with his projects are his son, Tyler Schmidt, and his grandson Nathan Swidas. Like grandfather and like father, Tyler is an ironworker laboring on construction sites. Like his forebears, he, too, has a passion for steel sculpture, but devotes only a small amount of time to the art. 

Still, he admits to work in the art and learn from his father is satisfying.

The grandson is only eight years old, but can work the welder's torch to make small pieces of art. Under the watchful eyes of his father and grandfather, and with help holding the welder's torch, Nathan can weld two pieces of metal together. 

"I've been welding for five years," said the youngster, who flashes a toothy grin when he lifts his welder's mask which is painted like the face of Spiderman.

Schmidt lives nextdoor to his studio, so he is only a few steps away from the steel his loves.  

"I have to hear that pounding; I have to feel that grinding and smell that dirt," said Schmidt, his eyes sparkling almost as much as the sparks flying off the welder's torch as it marries two pieces of steel. "That just what makes my adrenaline rush."