ALSTEAD --- Throughout the Connecticut River Valley, hidden among trees, off highways and down unpaved side streets, particularly observant passersby will notice nature of a very different stripe.
Perhaps it’s the giant praying mantis about to make a quick snack of a moth, a big-eyed wooly mammoth staring blithely out onto Forest Road, or a giraffe watching out over the children playing in its shadow at Alyson’s Orchard.
By day, Bob Taylor of Alstead is a typical work-a-day welder, but at night and on designated “art days” he and his crew, populated by his son James and friends, turn bits of barns, boats, old fan blades and other flotsam into massive metal roadside sculptures.
Over the past 45 years, largely by word of mouth, Team Taylor has garnered commissions from around the country and has become known for unique and masterful metal art made entirely of leftover and donated scrap.
In 1999, the Taylors were even asked to represent New Hampshire’s Yankee ingenuity at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and again at the expanded Celebrate New Hampshire festival held in 2000 in Hopkinton.
Taylor’s workshop, tucked behind an antique window business and an auto parts outpost, is a shrine to what he and his family of metal artists have created. Bulletin boards bear photos of metal animals of every ilk, awards and family snapshots. In a lofted space above is a store of metal pieces in varying shades from gray-black to rust, along with an antique Coca-Cola cart for good measure.
Standing outside his shop, where an equally impressive array of metal sits in buckets, on shelves and tucked into corners, Taylor holds up a twisted bit of what may have been some kind of farm implement’s blade.
“That could be a wing on a bird easily, or maybe a tail feather,” he said.
Tossing the blade to the side, Taylor picks up a rusted pitchfork. “That could be the back end of a rooster,” he said. “Oh yeah. We see things.”
Taylor, now in his 70s, gets animated when he talks about his art and relishes reminiscing over his scrapbook of accomplishments. But he remains Yankee silent about his early days, insisting, “I don’t think anyone would be interested in that.”
He did divulge that his mother was an artist and encouraged the practice in a young Bob Taylor.
“She took us to an art teacher that she was studying under and we did some work with oil paints,” Taylor said. “That was kind of neat.”
He says he took some college art classes. But in 1968 he headed to Alstead, where his brother Ray was living.
“My brother and I used to work at a place that made wooden pallets and we were maintenance men,” he said. “And on our break we used to take some of the broken parts and make little things. Probably the first thing I made was a little moon lander. “
For years, scrap-to-art remained largely a hobby. Eventually, the brothers struck out on their own, starting up Taylor’s Welding Services in the heart of downtown Alstead in the early 1980s.
While the brothers were busy with maintenance welding during the day, by night, they and some others would crack open some colds ones, take the scraps from the day’s work and make them into something all their own.
It was these late-night art benders that gave rise to local legend that a gaggle of artists were going out and leaving sculptures in fields all around town: an eagle here, an American Gothic replica there, a praying mantis in a field.
In truth though, most of these sculptures were commissioned, although the praying mantis was a bit of a surprise. Taylor said a local man had mentioned that his grandfather studied insects, adding that a statue of one would be nice. The Taylors got to work and once it was completed, brought it over one afternoon and left it in a field off of Route 12A, where it still sits.
Word eventually got out, as it’s wont to do in a small town, and pretty soon, more people wanted the Taylors’ wares decorating their lawns, hillsides and gardens. The team, which by then included Taylor’s son Jim, would have what they called art days. They’d shut down the shop to regular work and stick a sign out front that read, “The Great American Sculpt Out.”
Before they knew it, the team was doing art walks and art in the park and getting more and more commissions, including a 15-foot giraffe, an eagle with a 21-foot wing span and a giant polar bear made of fan blades clutching a steelhead (pun very much intended) trout in his teeth. From there a flock of peacocks, cranes, pelicans and even an owl or two came flying out of the shop and a life size, lovestruck moose and cow tableau took home a prize.
But perhaps one of the most impressive, was a scale model of the Wright Brothers’ plane Bob Taylor built just to see if he could do it. It turns out he could.
Pretty soon, their work started to end up along roadsides and highways throughout New Hampshire, up to Vermont into Connecticut and as far afield as Alaska and Hawaii. As word and projects spread, neighbors started bringing them materials: spare propellers, harrows, scythes, pipes and pitchforks. One of the more unusual donations came from a local archaeologist who, while digging on her land, discovered moose bones.
Taylor said she boiled them three times and then brought her treasures to the Taylors to see if they could reconstruct the entire skeleton in metal. Jim Taylor is currently working on the piece, which lays in polished and anatomically perfect bits on the ground just outside of the Taylor’s workshop.
Even the floods of 2005 couldn’t dampen the team’s momentum.
“One of our sculptures took a ride down the street,” Taylor said. “But someone with an end loader picked it up and dropped it off.” But the eagle out front didn’t budge, he said with a laugh, and is still there today.
In 2008, Ray Taylor passed away. Bob Taylor doesn’t say much about this when asked, and quickly changes the subject. Instead, he shows off projects he and his brother made and points with pride to the latest lineup of birds from his son.
“I can probably think of more things than I will ever be able to make,” he said. “But there’s a lot of satisfaction in getting to the end of it.”
Team Taylor’s workshop is located at 16 Forest Road, Alstead. For more information call 835-2569.