A precise, creative moment in time

By Tom Klemens

A successful businesswoman and artist explains why she loves welding

February 2014 - Betty Ballew-Levy has always been an artist, but during years spent in corporate America she relegated her personal creative efforts to the back burner. Now a private consultant based in south Florida, she has returned to her love of hands-on tinkering and maintains a studio on her parents’ Nebo, N.C., farm.

Ballew studied at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., earning a degree in graphic design with a minor in industrial technology. Although she had always been involved with her father’s projects, from building an experimental airplane in the basement to restoring a 1960s era MG convertible, it was at Appalachian State that she learned the joy of metalworking.

“I did a lot of heating, annealing and blacksmithing type stuff,” she says. “We also did lost wax castings and that kind of thing. But I loved working with the plate metal and forging it.” One of her class projects was to turn a piece of copper into a bowl exactly 12 in. in diameter and 5 in. deep. “You had to heat it, bend it, anneal it and so on. And I was the only one who made an A on the test. Everyone else poked holes through theirs.”

The experience inspired Ballew to think about a career of making custom auto body parts or something similar. However, there was little demand for such skills in the mountains of western North Carolina, so she pursued other employment.

FFJ-0203-webex-betty-image1Ballew landed her first corporate job in Raleigh, N.C., working for a local startup news station, NBC-17. “I was hired because I was an artist, so I became the wearer of many different hats at that time. I created set designs, on-air graphics packages, set lighting or whatever else they needed me to do,” she says She was quickly promoted to art director. She later took a job with a CBS affiliate in south Florida and it was there she won a regional Emmy award for a 3-D animation she had produced for the Miami Heat telecast show opening. “That project was a 22-day sprint I did just after I moved to Miami,” she says. It was that awards dinner that offered a route back to her love of metalworking.

“For some reason I had always been fascinated by chain mail,” Ballew says. “At one point I took aluminum welding rods and began wrapping them around a carriage bolt to make a bunch of little rings. So when I needed something to wear (for the awards dinner), and I had all these little panels of chain mail that I had been making, turning them into a dress just made sense.” The result was a 47-lb. dress, complemented by silver shoes and handbag, “and a pair of needle nose pliers tucked inside the bag, just in case I had a wardrobe malfunction,” she says. The dress was completed just an hour before the ceremony, Ballew recalls. “It was so heavy, I had to lie down on the couch just to knit it onto myself. But the moment they called my name on stage to receive my Emmy, the dress felt light as a feather.”

Building a portfolio

One of Ballew’s early artistic creations was a weather vane crafted out of metal scavenged from old farm equipment.  “I used rod that came from my great granddad’s tractor,” she says. “It was part of the gearshift lever and I had to use the oxyacetylene torch and heat it and bend it to make the north, south, east and west. I love doing that stuff.”

Ballew says eventually she would like a large anvil, “but right now I have a small anvil and this big hunk of railroad tie that has some nice curves to it, in places, that I can use for convex and concave shapes. I really do enjoy doing that … I think I was a blacksmith in a previous life, I really do.”

Given her fascination with molten metal, that seems likely. Meanwhile, having control over something that is otherwise so uncontrollable gives Ballew “that feeling of being a real magician, for a brief moment,” she says. “The thing is, when you get metal to a point of liquidity, where it’s flowing, you feel like a magician, like Merlin. You have empowered something, but you have control. You say to yourself, ‘Wow, I am in complete control of what happens to this piece of metal.’ It’s a brief moment in time, but it will stay like that until rust takes over, or someone else changes it.”

Ballew says the experience of welding is very similar. “When you get that bead – when you put those two pieces together and get them hot enough to actually become one, it’s like magic,” she says. “You can see it. You’re in the hood, and you’re like – ‘Ah, I got it.’ That moment— boom—that precise moment, and then it’s over. It’s amazing.” 


More projects

Like the weather vane, Ballew’s more recent projects comprise complex collections of recycled metal objects gleaned from around the family farm and beyond – old lawn mower parts and farm implements, kitchen pots and flatware. Each of her projects includes personal mementoes chosen specifically for the intended recipient of the sculpture.

In 2012 Ballew sculpted a 7-foot-tall horse using a Hobart 140 MIG welder. The sculpture now stands on a hill on the family farm and includes a variety of metal objects that belonged to her relatives at one time or another—one of her mother’s roasting pans, a tag from her grandfather’s old farm truck, and old signpost from her great-grandfather’s country store, to name but a few. Placed in a pasture visible from the road, the sculpture has such a realistic appearance that from a distance passing motorists often think it is a real horse.

For her next project, Ballew decided on an owl, again planning to incorporate castoff items from the family farm. “I actually cut the wing tips out of an old water heater,” she says. She uses a Hobart 250ci plasma cutter, which she says is “totally invaluable — I love my plasma cutter.” 


The owl sculpture is modeled after a great horned owl in flight. Somewhat larger than life-sized, this sculpture is built on a framework and armature made from engine parts. It’s for her husband, an aeronautical engineer.

And like all of her creations, the owl includes a personal artifact of special significance to the intended recipient. A former Navy pilot, Ballew’s husband flew F4 Phantoms, a memento of which is hidden within the owl sculpture. “At the owl’s heart, on the under side, is a small Phantom, flying upside down,” she says. The only way to see it is to look at one of the two Harley-Davidson motorcycle mirrors – also personal mementoes – mounted on the sides of the sculpture. “You see the reflection as the heart and the soul of this piece, like my husband,” she says.

More recently Ballew undertook a geometrical project, a 7-foot sphere constructed from rings, that would spin in the breeze. “Kinetic sculpture has always intrigued me, as it is ever changing and becomes part of the environment,” she says. “I wanted to keep the overall piece as a collection of circles, my favorite shape, because they have no beginning and no end.”


At a nearby scrap metal yard Ballew bought 1,000 metal rings from an industrial truck exhaust assembly. She MIG welded together nearly 600 rings to form the sphere. Inside about 250 of the rings she placed aluminum disks, each hand forged with a hammer to fit snugly into the shape of the circle. “I like the idea of dissimilar materials working together to create a whole entity,” Ballew says. “It reminds me of different people and cultures coming together for a common goal.”

To work with the aluminum, Ballew purchased a Miller Diversion 180 TIG welder. “It’s very much different than MIG welding for me,” she says. “But it’s got the hand control and the foot control, and it’s a nice piece of equipment.”

The sphere sculpture, too, includes items from Ballew’s childhood, as well as newer objects from her more recent past. It’s quite a list: A dart board ring of numbers, a Harley clutch assembly part, burner bibs from her mother’s stove, as well as her old wok, outdoor light housings, a humming bird feeder top, her grandmother’s old serving tray “and other stuff,” she says.


Winglets made of Plexiglas are attached to the structure with metal arms. They extend out when the air catches them, and fold inward back into the orb when it spins. “I wanted the overall piece to reflect light via the Plexiglas and the metal discs, and I also wanted it to look like the pieces were floating or even exploding off the orb,” Ballew says.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, her horse sculpture is getting ready for a ride. Late in 2013 Ballew was invited to exhibit her work at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton, Ohio. The 335-acre establishment features more than 60 outdoor sculptures. From the looks of things, Ballew’s horse sculpture will be in good company, joining works by the likes of John Henry and dozens of others. “I am just super excited,” Ballew says, and what true artist wouldn’t be?

Ballew acknowledges that she is very fortunate to be able to lead two lives, one as a consultant in the business world of south Florida and the other as an artist in rural North Carolina. And for now, she seems to have hit her stride and also to have struck a good balance. “Just enjoy your life and weld while you can,” she says, “because you don’t get any younger.” FFJ





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