This past Christmas, Tammy Lee received a large box of rust-covered scrap metal from her granddaughter. “How many women get a box of rusty junk and think it is super cool?” Tammy asks with a laugh. To her, the box wasn’t full of junk. It was full of art supplies.
Tammy, owner of Junkyard Art by Tam-I-Am, takes old hand tools, farm implement parts and other discarded metal items and turns them into sculptures. Pieces include tractors, snails, dancers, owls and so much more – all made of scrap metal.
“People like the idea of taking something that has seen its lifespan and headed for a landfill or scrapyard and seeing it turned into something useful and artsy they can enjoy,” Tammy says.
Before becoming a full-time artist, Tammy worked as a freelance court reporter where she recorded depositions. “I really did love that job,” she says. “It gave me a lot of freedom, and it was a good paying job.”
Then several years ago, Tammy injured her back. “It got so bad, I couldn’t do anything,” Tammy explains. “I was pretty much limited to bed and had to have surgery.” At the time, she was a fitness buff, ran 5Ks and wasn’t the type to sit around.
“While waiting to have surgery, I was looking at Pinterest, and I saw something cool made from old junk,” Tammy recalls. “I mentioned it to my husband … the next thing I knew, on one of our trips to my doctor, he said, ‘Let’s stop in this store.’ He bought me a little welder, brought me out to the shop and gave me my first lesson.”
Living on a farm south of Fairfield on Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative lines, Tammy says there was a lot of old junk laying around that she could tinker with. “I was horrible [at first], but it really took off from there,” she says. “I posted a few pictures of things I made on my Facebook page that I thought were kind of cool … and people started asking me, ‘Are you going to start selling?’”
As her welding skills improved, she decided to start a business page on Facebook, where she does the bulk of her business. “It has really helped me get my name out there – not only locally, but I do have followers from around the world,” Tammy says. She also utilizes Instagram, Snapchat and has quite the following on TikTok.
“When I started posting videos on TikTok, which I still can’t believe I had the guts to do, I was scared I would get a lot of negative feedback,” Tammy says. “There’s some mean people out in the world, especially when they can be anonymous, but I have had very positive remarks.”
In May 2020, Tammy decided to leave her career to become a full-time artist. “It had gotten to a point where I was miserable in my job,” Tammy says. “All I could think about was how much I wanted to be in my shop. I decided life is too short to not be happy, and I took the risk of quitting my job. It ended up working really well for me.”
She thought doing art full time would help her keep up with orders, but it didn’t work out that way. She got even busier, which surprised her, especially during the pandemic. She created more than 700 pieces in 2020, and by Christmas, she was running low
Last year, all but two of her shows were canceled, so she did the bulk of her sales online and in her metal workshop, which was open by appointment and on Saturdays late in the year. She also does special orders, creating memorial pieces after someone’s loved one has passed. Families will bring in buckets of old tools, and she will create a piece to remember them by. “I really love to do it,” she says.
Her workshop is full of junk, but it’s organized. “I can find what I need when I need it,” Tammy says. “I do have a lot of what I call art supplies … I have a little bit of a hoarding problem. I cannot pass up pieces I know I can use when I’m out junking.”
Tammy says she has always had an imagination. “When I was young, my imagination got me in trouble. Now it makes me money, which is kind of nice. When I’m out junking and looking at pieces, that’s how I know pieces that I want. I will look at it and something pops out at me … like a head of an animal. My mind works different than a lot of people.”
More than 90 percent of her art supplies are purchased. “People assume that I get all my stuff for free,” Tammy says. “While some people do bring me buckets of stuff, and I love that, I do pay for most of my art supplies.”
On average, Tammy spends an hour and a half to 4 hours on a sculpture with the bulk of the time spent cleaning rather than constructing it. Most of the art supplies are covered in rust, so one helpful tool she uses is a concrete mixer. She throws in sand and her art supplies and lets it run. After several hours of tumbling in the mixer, the rust comes off.
Then she spends a lot of time cleaning up the sculptures after being put together. “When you weld, it leaves behind an ugly finish that I clean up. The bulk of my sculptures are coated with polyurethane so they can be protected.” This can be time consuming because of all the parts that make up each sculpture.
“I spend a lot of time dirty. It’s ridiculous. I think some people think I’m joking when I post a picture of my dirty face, but it is filthy work,” Tammy says. “My hands often look like a mechanic’s hands. It is just part of it.” She wears protective equipment including gloves, a heavy leather smock and her signature red and white polka dot welding hood.
“I still consider myself a newbie,” Tammy says. “People often think I have been welding for years, but I haven’t. There’s a lot I don’t know about welding and I want to learn.”
Junkyard Art by Tam-I-Am
By appointment only
1769 County Road 300 North
Barnhill, Illinois 62809
Junkyard Art by Tam-I-Am
Order online via Facebook