The following is an interview with reclaimed metal artist Matt Retzlaff, and his wife Valerie who runs the operational part of the business.
Matt: Back in high school I had a welder and would do little project here and there.
Matt: I got more artistic 6 years ago, after our son was born – it was a good outlet from the chaos of the newborn. That’s when I began to collect metal that people would throw out.
Does it run in the family?
Matt: My mother was a pretty big potter, and was into watercolors, so there’s some history there. My grandmother was into painting. My dad was always mechanical, working on cars and tractors. There were always boxes of nuts and bolts around. I suppose I blended it all together.
When did you first realize that this type of artisanry was in your cards?
Valerie: We went to the Lewiston Art Festival in 2018. People just loved his work – his bison won the best of show. It was incredible because he was still relatively new to this. But it was a lot of work – so he took a year off, making pieces and waiting to do another show. Then the pandemic hit. We had all of this stuff. So we had a website made, instead of going to shows. And etsy. His Bolt Bees became the most recognizable – engineer groups would share the photos. That’s when Uncommon Goods called us and asked if we could do a collaboration. We did the double Bolt Bee for them. It organically grew from there. Today he has 11,500 followers on Instagram, and it’s growing like crazy.
Do you look at things differently than other artisans?
Matt: One of the things I like to do is incorporate different tools. I try to keep pieces whole and recognizable – to keep the pieces separate. The closer you get, the more you see – a pair of pliers, a screwdriver. It’s more personal and time consuming – everything has to be just right. A lot of people will cut stuff from sheets of steel. I try to keep the found objects in their natural state.
Matt: It all depends on the seasons, what I’m working on. During Christmas I work on smaller more straightforward garden pieces. I start on the more intricate pieces when I have a breather.
Valerie: Buffalo winters is when he works on his bigger items.
Do you ever run out of stuff?
Matt: No.You’d be surprised what’s out there. A while back, a landscaping company got rid of their old tools. I got 83 spade shovels, which I use for the owls. You have to train your brain to look for stuff. It will come if you’re looking.
Matt has had several features in welding trade magazines, including Cobham magazine.
Where do you sell?
Matt: Mostly online – Wayfair and Amazon. We are in no stores at this time. We both work full time, so it’s hard enough without being in stores. Plus, we are able to retail the works ourselves.
Matt currently has a piece called ‘Huffy’ at the Burchfield-Penney through November as part of their ‘Media in Craft’ show.
Valerie: We were almost going to purchase a property for a retail space but that fell through – we’re not sure what our next step is going to be at this time.
Matt: The works have to be seen in person to see all of the details – the art festivals is where it’s at.
Matt: Mine is The Watcher – great horned owl mounted on a vintage air compressor tank, with alarm clocks wrenches, drill bits, etc.
Valerie: Matt puts personality into each piece, so I usually name them. Like the sheep low to the ground is named Lowrider. Last year for Christmas he made three reindeer.
I created a story around them – they’re called Sleigh Metal Reindeer – they came alive for me.
When we sold the first one, I was actually very sad.
What’s a crowd favorite?
Matt: We sell the bee-related ones all over the world. We had to get the design copyrighted – people were stealing the photos and putting them on their own websites.
Have you ever worked on a public art piece?
Matt: I haven’t – I’m still waiting to hear back about an offer.
Is this your day job?
Matt: I oversee a production line for a local aviation company, doing actuators for cruise missiles.
Valerie: I work for Lawley Insurance in claims.
Matt’s copyrighted ‘Bolt Bee’ designs are his most recognizable and shared work.
Where do you want to be five years from now?
Matt: I see myself still have my day job but also being at a place where I can show my work.
Valerie: We’re not risk takers – we’re both financially savvy. We want to be smart about our next moves – grow organically… keep that momentum going, until we know that we can make that next move.
Get connected: mattretzlaff.com | Instagram @mattretzlaffart