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Dick’s Designs

A hobby that got out of hand

August 17, 2009
by Chuck Hunt, Register Editor
Most men age 74 are retired and taking it easy, golfing or fishing.

Dick Sonnek of rural Mapleton is retired, but taking it easy isn’t in his vocabulary.

Sonnek, along with his wife, Marion, run two enterprises at their Faribault County farmstead.

Dick runs ‘Dick’s Designs,’ and spends at least eight hours a day making iron garden art.

Marion spends at least that much time tending to the huge number of flower gardens – and one for vegetables – which surround their home. They call that venture ‘Sonnek Gardens.’

“We get a lot of garden clubs and even a tour bus or two stopping in,” Dick says. “Lots of folks just stop in.”

They may come to see the gardens, but they also buy some of the iron garden art while they are there.

On Monday, two ladies from Rochester stopped in to see the gardens, and Marion gave them a personal tour. One of the ladies also made a $72 purchase of an iron ornament.

Dick has been making the art and ornamental iron pieces full-time for the past 20 years.

During the summer, they go to at least eight art/craft shows to display – and sell – Dick’s work. Last week they were in Loring Park in the Twin Cities, and the following week were headed to Oronoco by Rochester for a large show.

Sonnek makes dozens of different types of items, but he can break them into two categories – garden ornaments and unique art pieces.

“The garden ornaments pay the bills,” he says with a smile. “But it is the larger art pieces which are more fun.”

He has several designs which he manufactures over and over. Most sell for $48.

The other art is more ‘one-of-a-kind’ pieces. They can range in price from $100 to several thousands of dollars.

In his yard and gardens he has items ranging from a giant horse and chicken, to a whimsical frog band, which plays actual antique musical instruments.

There are space aliens, giant birds, turtles, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and a girl reading a book.

And much, much more. Everywhere one looks in Marion’s gardens, they will see an iron piece of art by Dick. In one corner is a life-size Bill Clinton playing the sax. In another, four birds on a fence (although a closer look reveals one of the birds is actually a cat – disguised as a bird.)

Sonnek says the ideas for his art come in odd ways. The massive horse, for instance, started with one piece of scrap iron that Dick thought looked like a horse’s mane. So he built a 16-foot iron horse to fit it.

“Some sculptors say they carve a horse out of wood or stone by ‘removing everything that isn’t the horse, and the horse is what is left,’” he says. “With me it is the opposite. I start with some iron pieces and keep adding items until the horse appears.”

If he doesn’t like the way a project is going, he just removes something and then welds on something else.

“Sometimes I have to walk away for a bit, and come back to it later,” he says. “I can visualize it better sometimes if it is not right in front of me.”

Sonnek says he has a good sense of scale, so he can create something and have the head, hands and feet all match in size, no matter what piece of scrap iron they are made out of.

He gets about 98 percent of his material from a scrap metal business in Mankato. They don’t let the public come in and ‘browse’ normally, but Dick is allowed to come and buy whatever he needs.

“I do order steel balls called ‘spheres’ that I mainly use for heads,” he says. “You just can’t find them in scrap yards.”

Dick and Marion live in the home that his parents bought in 1949 when Dick was 13 years old.

Dick and Marion farmed it until he retired in 1984, and now they rent out the land.

Dick started to dabble in antique toys after retiring, and traveled the country buying and selling them.

He was on a toy buying trip to Texas when he first saw some iron garden ornaments, and thought he could do that, too.

“I never had any art training or anything, but I had taught myself to weld on the farm,” he recalls. “Once I started, I was hooked and kept making more and more items.”

He bought a modern plasma cutter (electronic torch), and some antique blacksmith tools and went to work at it full-time.

“It was like a hobby that got out of hand – like many of them do,” Dick says.

The huge iron horse remains one of his favorite pieces, but not just because it is so large.

It took 54 hours to complete, and contains a lot of old scrap iron items which are visible inside it.



To read more of this story, see this week's Register.

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