AUBURN, Iowa – Every once in a while, passers-by make an unscheduled stop, needing to take a closer look at three oak trees standing near the start of the Grant Park Trail here.
Are the 24ft tall oak trees real? Or are they just incredibly realistic replicas?
“Some people actually said they had to go out and touch them,” said Tanner King, a skilled welder who creates realistic metal sculptures that, at first glance, might trick you into thinking they’re real.
This is exactly the kind of reaction King is aiming for.
“That’s one of my goals, to make sure it feels as real as possible,” King said.
The majority of his business at Martin’s Welding remains commercial welding for area farmers, but the number of requests he receives for his ornamental welding pieces continues to increase.
“You never know what’s coming next,” King said.
He certainly could not have known that his carvings would end up in resort towns in Okoboji and the Lake of the Ozarks when, relying on the artistic ability he says runs on both sides of his family, he first created a life-size palm tree about seven years old. There are.
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“I thought it would be pretty cool to build sculptures,” King said. “I just thought I could sell them.”
As he quickly discovered after selling that first tree, if you build it, customers will come.
“Word of mouth has been spreading like crazy,” he said. “I probably did close to a hundred.”
Some have grown in Auburn and nearby Sac City and Lake View. Others are held at Okoboji and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. He sold a 15 truck to a buyer in Kansas City.
Once word of King’s talent for making palm trees spread, more requests came. The city of Sac City asked if they could craft dandelions to place in the city’s south park. The result, three stunning 26-foot-tall stainless steel sculptures of seeded dandelions so lifelike you’d expect to see the seeds blowing away in the breeze. King created bald eagles, turtles, cranes, butterflies, owls and other animals and plants – all extremely realistic.
“I look at an image and build from there,” he said.
He separated a lot of dandelions as research before building the Sac City parts. Before sculpting a turtle, he caught one and kept it in a tank in his shop for a week to study before releasing it. Realism is important to King, and that’s a big reason why you won’t find him doing abstract art.
“That’s one thing I won’t do is do something that doesn’t look like it should,” King said.
The artistic side of his work continues to develop over a lifetime spent welding. He grew up across the street, spending hours in the workshop owned by his grandfather Martin Erickson, who had owned it since 1955 and taught King how to weld. A mini motorcycle the two built together when Tanner was 12 or 13 is on display inside.
King began renting the store from Erickson in 2010 or 2011, he said, eventually inheriting after his grandfather died in 2014. Erickson never really retired, King said, se showing up at the store almost every day to see how things were going. He saw his grandson’s first palm tree, and King said he would have appreciated the growing ornamental side of the business.
“He would think that was cool,” King said.
Many other local residents think so too.
King said he and his two employees have enough ornamental plant orders to keep them busy through July. This, of course, depends on what comes through the door. King remains focused on its commercial customers. You won’t find him working on palm trees during the busy spring planting and fall harvest seasons, when farmers come to him to weld broken machinery.
The artwork keeps him busy during quieter times, when he can take the time to let his creativity take over.
“It’s been good,” King said, “and obviously the more we do it, the easier it gets.”
And the easier it becomes for King, the harder it becomes for the rest of us to tell his creations from the real thing.