LEWISTON, Cache County — Malen Pierson grabs a rusty wrench from a pile of similarly oxidized junk and moves it deftly into place. After a couple of blinding flashes from the welding torch, it is no longer a wrench, but the side of a goat’s face.
The metal goat sculpture’s face is one of Pierson’s most popular pieces among his found-metal art — an art form he helped pioneer and popularize.
Pierson has been a professional, full-time artist for more than 20 years. His work has been purchased by a who’s-who list of celebrities that includes Johnny Depp, Queen Latifah, Robert Redford and Martha Stewart and can be found for sale in galleries across the world.
Many of Pierson’s big-time clients aren’t just interested in his art, but in befriending the artist as well. When he’s not fly-fishing with patrons in Bolivia, attending World Series games or shooting $100,000 shotguns with English royalty, the award-winning, globe-trotting artist lives in this tiny Northern Utah town, population: 1,759.
“I love small towns,” he said, explaining how the privacy of a small community allows the outgoing and sociable 48-year-old artist to more easily focus on his work.
Pierson's home — and backyard workshop — are just a few blocks from Lewiston's Main Street. Colorful skis line the fence around an old '20s-era train station that Pierson converted into a house, where he lives with his wife and two teenage children. A tall, rusted metal sculpture of a child swinging in the hands of his parents sits in the front yard, and beyond a similarly artistic-looking front gate, a massive 12-foot metal fly with a World War II-era bombshell for a body and satellite dishes for wings can be seen perched atop Pierson’s workshop.
The backyard is a gallery of its own.
Finished sculptures surround the workshop: an imposing, life-size bison, welded together from conveyor belt chains and other parts, stands near several moose sculptures, made up of old tractor seats, pitchforks, hammers, monkey wrenches and an assortment of other rusty old bits of metal left behind, now reclaimed and made into art.
An uphill battle
Dressed in a heavy leather apron and gloves, Pierson looks like a medieval blacksmith as he moves around his workshop. He makes fast progress on the goat in front of him, grabbing a mint-colored propane tank and wedging it into the hand-bent metal framework, giving it a belly. A few more wrenches soon fill in some of the spaces in the goat’s neck. Then he adds a hammer. Next, a screwdriver.
“Yeah, I just kind of get into a rhythm, you know?” Pierson said. “I just start filling in pieces; that’s the fun part.”
Watching him make the goats with well-practiced speed, plucking parts from a pile and quickly welding them into place, the process can seem deceptively simple, but Pierson is quick to point out that being an artist is a difficult career to launch and develop.
“The first 10 years were hard; it’s always an uphill battle,” Pierson said. “Sometimes you fight it, but you always come back to what you’re supposed to do.”
Pierson started selling his art at Logan's Summerfest, an annual summer gathering of art and music in Logan, where he attended college.
“He was so determined to do it,” Pierson’s mother, Linda Pierson, said. “(He and his wife, Wendy,) struggled, he did the smaller shows, Wendy worked; it was hard at first. It takes a while to build up your name and reputation.”
Pretty soon, though, bigger, more prestigious art shows were on the horizon. Pierson’s unique kind of found-object metal sculptures garnered a lot of attention.
"When he first started, there weren't even categories for his art at the shows. We just had to put 'other,'" Wendy Pierson said. "He had a lot of artist friends — working in things like ceramics before — who changed to metal and started trying to do what he was doing, after they saw how much success he was having."
After his art won several first-place prizes in the 1990s, Pierson was commissioned in 2000 by the Sundance Film Festival in Park City to provide artwork for all the award winners. In the years following, he received awards from the Utah Arts Council as well as several prestigious Best of Show awards. In 2016, Pierson spent January in Mussafah, Abu Dhabi, as one of five professional artists invited to the capital for an art ambassador residency program, where he designed pieces for the U.S. Embassy. Two decades after he began selling his art at Summerfest in Logan, several of his large heron sculptures now beautify the same street.
“He always liked art,” Linda Pierson said. “We always enjoyed it, and right from the time he was small, he was always into art.”
Born in Fontana, California, Pierson moved to Wellsville, Utah, with his family as a child. He later moved to Logan and eventually out to Lewiston, which Pierson said he loves for its small, rural feel.
“I’m very sociable, but out here I’m very private,” Pierson said.
Pierson said escaping the busy bustle of a city — even one as relatively small as nearby Logan — allows him to focus better on his art, which is a talent that, according to Pierson’s mother, runs in the family. She said the Piersons have a history of artists in the family on both sides, going back to the 1800s. One of Pierson’s biggest influences was his father, Howard, who was an accomplished welder and amateur artist.
“He kind of showed him different things, how to put things together, I think,” Linda Pierson said.
Linda Pierson is no stranger to the art world herself; she worked for more than 10 years as an administrative assistant at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University, where Pierson studied art and found his signature style.
“I just started playing with different types of materials,” Pierson said. “Now, I mostly stay within boundaries, mostly create animals with old farming machine antiques and things.”
Pierson said he is only interested in using pieces with history.
"Malen has the ability — I think he inherited it from his dad — to see value in what everybody else thinks is junk," said Steve Parkinson, one of Pierson’s close friends, "and that's what makes him brilliant.”
Linda Pierson said she is always on the lookout for old antique bits of metal her son might be able to use in his sculptures.
“I’ll go to these garage sales and I’ll pick up rakes, old tools — he loves them,” Linda said. “The more rusty they are, the better they are for him; they have more patina, that’s what he looks for.”
She remembers finding a "Mork & Mindy" lunchbox at a garage sale and gave it to her son. Pierson ended up welding it into one of his goats, which eventually caught the eye of Robin Williams at an art show in Sausalito, California.
“Robin Williams was Mork, so he wanted to buy it, but it had already sold,” Linda Pierson said. “It’s hard to believe some of the art he comes up with and some of the people that he knows.”
Pierson gets most of the metal he uses in his artwork from his favorite scrap yard, Idaho Salvage Metals, which is only a quick ride up the road from his house, just across the Idaho border in nearby Preston. He said he usually visits it at least once or twice a week looking for new material.
“Half the job is going out and finding the stuff,” Pierson said. “I have to go to the scrapyard, get the stuff; it’s time-consuming — it’s not all just welding and filling it in.”
Pierson’s friends said a big part of his success as an artist is not just his sculptures, but his amiable, friendly attitude and easygoing personality.
"It’s not enough to have a piece; now it's like, 'I do stuff with the guy,'" Parkinson said. "He’ll send me a text, he’s at the Super Bowl, some client took him The guy goes everywhere! And most of it is on these people’s dime.”
Photos of his trips abroad show him dressed in tweed and traditional British hunting attire to go pheasant hunting with one of his friends, an English lord. Another picture shows Pierson grinning at the bottom of a sand dune, dressed in the traditional garb of Abu Dhabi, in white robes and a red hat. Pierson spoke fondly of how much he liked the United Arab Emirates and its people and meeting their ruler.
Linda Pierson said her son inherited a lot of his outgoing and gregarious mannerisms from his father.
“My husband could talk to anybody and Malen has that same gift. He just has a way of talking to people; some of these people are world-famous and he can just sit and talk like they’re old friends,” Linda said. “A lot of artists can’t sell their stuff; some are really good artists, but they can’t converse with people.”
That is certainly not the case with Pierson, who is always quick to share some of his wildest stories with anybody who will listen.
“He’s very enthusiastic and it’s infectious, talking to him about what he’s been doing, who he’s seen, the art fairs he’s been to, the people he gets to meet,” said Meri DeCaria, the director and curator of Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City, where DeCaria said some of Pierson’s work has been featured and displayed for more than 20 years.
DeCaria said another reason Pierson’s art is so popular is how relatable it is.
“It makes people laugh,” she said. “It's in a price range that people can afford, and the imagery he uses is recognizable to people.”
Not all of his work has a price tag. He said a family in the community had recently suffered the death of their 5-year-old son, so he was collaborating with other local artists to make and donate a Captain America statue, one of the boy’s favorite heroes. His reasoning was simple.
“It’s good to help people, right?” Pierson said.
Pierson’s website lists a number of charities he has contributed his time and talents to over the years, and he said he’s glad people can find joy in his artwork. Watching him assemble a new sculpture piece by piece in his workshop, he seems relaxed and at ease, clearly enjoying the process himself.
After fitting what looks like the rusty lid of a pot next to a tractor seat to complete the haunches of a horse, Pierson lifts his welding helmet to take a break. Hidden in the corner of the workshop is a slow cooker simmering with Irish corned beef — one of Pierson’s favorite recipes. It rests precariously atop a dusty copy of a Nelson Rockefeller Collection Masterpieces of Modern Art book, which serves as both a makeshift table and as a metaphor for Pierson himself: a self-described folk artist who is as at home in a scrapyard as he is wining and dining with the rich and famous in exotic locales around the world.
Pierson said some people try to pursue similar careers only for the money or the prestige, and inevitably they burn out or aren’t able to make it.
“Very few artists are successful,” Pierson said, “but art has been amazing for me. I’ve been at this 23 years. It’s a good life.”
Pierson grins and turns back toward the now half-completed horse. Before long, his welding mask is lowered into place and sparks shoot from his blowtorch once again.