President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.” This is a statement that local craftsman and artist Kris Nethercutt would agree with heartily.
Nethercutt is a Franklin artist and craftsman most well known for his sculpture outside of the Factory at Franklin. The 20-foot-tall statue named Rusty has become an icon for that shopping district and catches the eye of both passersby and children alike. While it shows Nethercutt’s sense of humor and whimsy with items such as a “wrenched” ankle made from an actual wrench, it began as a symbolic representation of Nethercutt’s pride in America’s industrial history.
“When Calvin Lehew commissioned me to build Rusty, he didn’t give me any guidelines. I had total freedom. The only input he had was when I asked, ‘How big do you want this statue?’ And he said, ‘Oh about 15 to 18 feet tall.’ Rusty ended up being 20 feet tall – and I can tell you why – but that was the only guideline.”
As Nethercutt describes, he is proud of America’s background as a mechanical superpower. “That [is] America’s genius. It wasn’t Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Bach and Beethoven. It was the industrial arts that grew this nation. It was the Industrial Revolution that we won, and it made us a superpower.”
Nethercutt, who has trained as a welder and as a machinist, has decades of experience in the metalworking profession, working for such long-standing companies as the former CPS Industries in Franklin and John Bouchard & Sons in Nashville.
“I learned to weld here in Franklin. I took welding for two years in high school at the Yates Vocational School, and that’s where I learned to weld. I worked in Franklin at CPS in their Maintenance Department as a welder, and that’s where I learned how to run mills and metal lathes and milling machines and the machine shop equipments. The last ‘real’ job I had was with John Bouchard & Sons in Nashville. I quit there to be self-employed, because I like what I do so much that I wanted to do it full time. So, little by little, I collected equipment and became self-employed. I’ve never looked back!”
In fact, his “bread and butter,” as he calls it, is the manufacturing of wrought-iron window treatments, curtain rods and other decorative items. He has a remarkable talent for creating ingenious works of art from salvaged metal items from a wide variety of origins – from the squirrel cage fans on a heating and air unit to antique tractor and truck parts. His art is readily identifiable, and it all comes from a place of thrift, industry and creativity.
Nethercutt is beginning a bit of an industrial revolution of his own, albeit on a much smaller scale. His remarkable works of art are crafted from commonplace items that he finds at scrap yards, junk heaps and other widely varying locales. One of his most treasured hordes of raw material came from a place that most Nashvillians will remember well. Long a fixture in Nashville’s history, the Union Station and its train shed stood as a silent reminder of Nashville’s historical role in the railroad industry. In fact, the L&N Railroad – officially named “Louisville and Nashville” – has a terminal point in Nashville. Nashville’s piece of railroad history, embodied in the train shed of the Union Station, fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2000 to public outcry. Nethercutt has quite a special project underway that is helping to preserve the memory of this Nashville landmark.
“I have an absolute treasure in my stockroom, back there behind the fence. About three years ago, I was able to buy from the Tennessee Preservation Trust some of the last remaining fragments of the train shed behind Union Station that was torn down. I have a letter of authenticity to verify that it is what I claim it to be, and I make pieces from that. You can own pieces of Nashville’s past! When the train shed was built, it was a modern marvel of the day, built in 1898. It was the largest roof structure in America without any support – just freestanding poles around the perimeter. If you think about it, in 1898 – that was very impressive.”
Nethercutt uses these raw materials and crafts them into interesting keepsakes and one-of-a-kind home décor products. “I’ve got a lamp I do out of some of them. I have a little bit of the heart-pine lumber that was the rafters, and they can be made into coffee tables or end tables or fireplace mantels. I do fireplace andirons with some of the iron. The iron is primarily what I bought, and it’s not especially decorative. It was the hardware that held it all together. But it still has a really good weathered look, and it has such a historic footnote.”
While not all of Nethercutt’s raw materials have such august beginnings, he is nonetheless able to turn even the most commonplace of items into whimsical, humorous and intriguing works of art. Take for instance the unique fence that borders his property. Nethercutt created a fence out of discarded bicycles he salvaged from a local scrap yard. By welding these bicycles together, one in front of the other, he created a fence that is both unique and practical. It brings to mind the “two-seater” bicycles, but instead of having a mere two seats, Nethercutt’s fence has at least seven or eight bicycles together in a line. Astride most of these bicycles are figures Nethercutt has crafted from various automotive and industrial waste – a muffler for the body, sheet metal for the legs. One particular lady bicyclist is riding backwards and is amusingly decorated with plumbing items fashioned into a hat and jewelry.
Nethercutt explained more about his philosophy. “I’ve grown up poor. It hurts me to see what people so easily throw away.” Nethercutt, whose skills as an artist can transform the most commonplace of items. He sees a treasure where most of us may see trash. You can see evidence of this in Nethercutt’s use of items that could never be called “purely” artistic – a bolt of chain as an earring or a metal colander for a hat, for instance. It is this remarkable ability to see beauty in the banal that makes Nethercutt’s work so intriguing.
“Ever since I made this fence, all the kids in the neighborhood – it got their attention. I used to have a pile of junk bikes in front of the shop. Well, they all wanted a bicycle and kept coming around, and I made friends with them. I said, ‘If you mow my yard, I’ll get you a bicycle. If you clean out my shop, I’ll get you a bicycle.’ There’s a lesson to be learned here – there’s no ‘free lunch’ in this world. You help me, and I’ll help you. They’d come to me with a flat tire, and I needed firewood stacked. So I’d teach them how to fix them themselves.”
This practical yet helpful approach to interacting with his neighborhood buddies has already shown dividends for these kids. “I’d keep a toolbox in my shop just for fixing bikes. These kids are now 16 and 17, and they don’t come around as much, but they get the toolbox and fix their bikes and put it right back.” Learning both practical skills and responsibility will keep these young boys and girls in good stead, and Nethercutt shows a glimpse of pride in their interest in mechanical ways when he describes one particular project they worked on together.
“When they were 13 and 14, they came one night and said, ‘We need your help with a summer project,’ and I said ‘Okay.’ They said, ‘We need a go-cart!’ And before I could say no, they said they didn’t need a motor on it – they just wanted to push each other around. I thought that wasn’t too much to ask, and this is what we came up with. In the beginning, ‘Scrapper’ didn’t pedal. They pushed each other around on it, and they had a ball! They pushed it all over town. The following year, I got more parts and we put pedals on it, and last year, they rode it in Leipers Fork’s Christmas parade. We decorated it all up, and they got their picture in the paper!”
This remarkable artist and craftsman Kris Nethercutt is indeed the very model of Coolidge’s adage of industry, thrift and self-control.
“I believe anyone who does their job – whatever it is – to the best of their ability and beyond is an artist. When you’re self employed and you build things that people can live without, it [can get] pretty skinny. It occurred to me that we are all in this together, and we’ve got help each other out here. ‘Ubuntu.’ Are you familiar with that phrase? Nelson Mandela was credited for this word, and what it means is, ‘I am who I am because of what we all are together.’ Now that’s pretty deep if you think about it.”
For more information on Kris Nethercutt and his craftsmanship, you can visit him at his brand-new store opening fall 2013 at 1182 West Main – just off the beaten path in downtown Franklin, Tennessee.
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Capstar Bank