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Special Report: Custom Fabricating

The woman can weld

By Nick Wright

Graphic designer-turned-welder Betty Ballew shows why women should pick up the torch

July/August 2014 - In an industry where, on some level, everyone knows what to do with a wrench, a torch or a CNC machine, it’s not out of the question to call fabricators handy. It’s that one word that suggests not so much a mastery, but a practical grasp of how things work, making a well-rounded worker the go-to person both inside and outside the shop. There’s a word for such a person: handyman.

Except, in this case, we’re talking about a handywoman. Meet Betty Ballew.

MM-07814-betty-image1Betty Ballew-Levy calls herself an artist, and upon glancing at her works and sculptures, you might think so, too. But she takes the fabrication craft to the next level. For someone who once linked together rings of aluminum welding rod into an entire 47-lb. chainmail dress, which she wore at an Emmy Awards dinner in Miami several years ago, Ballew is more sartorial MacGyver than traditional metalworker. 

“I call it wearable art,” she says. “And all the bikers loved it.”

She crafts her pieces at her family’s farm in Nebo, North Carolina, a rural community 40 miles east of Asheville that barely registers on the population scale. There, armed with welders, “tons of hand tools, whiz wheels and air tools used to help with finishing rough edges of plasma cut pieces,” Ballew makes magic happen.

“For commission pieces, I insist on the client giving me something metal from their past that is meaningful to them,” she says. “Nothing of great value, but something that has a special place in their heart. This makes them part of the piece.”

There’s been a groundswell of interest in Ballew’s work, as she’s been asked to display her works in such locales as Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton, Ohio, near Cincinnati.

“I’ve turned down many offers for my first piece, the horse sculpture I affectionately call Maximus,” she says of the tall, brooding, symmetrical equine assembled from rusted hubcaps, bicycle parts, mesh and barbed wire. 

Career jump

Before trading stilettos for steel, Ballew shaped a successful career in producing on-air television graphics for the likes of NBC and the NBA’s Miami Heat. She studied graphic design and industrial technology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, for which she knew there weren’t many job opportunities in her hometown, Nebo. She applied to work at a cardboard box factory and a textile company, setting up designs on a computer before they’d get printed on linens. Without any experience, she didn’t get the job.

Buoyed by a part-time hostess job at a steakhouse, she started airbrushing, which led her to illustrating comic books. Subsequent projects in that medium culminated in a published cover for the comic “Spawn,” authored by Todd McFarlane. A few weeks after the “Spawn” cover debuted, Ballew got her break. A friend working for the NBC affiliate in nearby Raleigh called to ask if Ballew would be interested in producing on-air video graphics. 

“I had no clue how to do this, but sold them on myself anyway,” she recalls. She eventually became art director. More doors opened, and she moved to southern Florida for a job with CBS, where she won an Emmy for an animated clip that aired during a Miami Heat broadcast introduction. After a stint in advertising, Ballew started Blue Ink Productions, a consulting company she continues to run. 

“This gave me the opportunity to start getting back to my roots as an artist,” she says.

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Getting to work

Ballew always evoked the sleeves-rolled-up work ethic that’s characteristic of entrepreneurs. Her gumption is that of a 21st century Rosie the Riveter, unencumbered by fear of the unknown or the heat of a torch. Growing up, her parents taught Ballew and her sister “that we could do anything we set our minds to,” she says.

She’s a mix of tomboy and Glamazon, attracted to “shiny” things, but she definitely wasn’t a typical girl. “Most of my female peers would be at sleepovers at their friends’ houses and I would be in the basement with my Dad helping him build an airplane,” Ballew explains. They worked on cars, like a 1960s MG convertible, and tinkered on motorcycles and chainsaws. Courses she took in college, like metal fabrication, print making and typesetting galvanized her avocational passion.

Ballew uses a Hobart Handler 140 Wire-Feed MIG welder with shielding gas and a Hobart AirForce 250Ci 115V inverter-based plasma cutter with built-in air compressor. For TIG welding, she employs a Miller Diversion 180. Someone also donated a railroad scrap tie to hammer against when she forges metal.

Ballew includes elements that allow the works to be seen not just as accomplished works of art, but as fabrication keepsakes. She mostly works with steel, but is venturing more into aluminum with her TIG welder.

“When I first started welding in January of 2012, I used only rusted scrap materials. Now, I like to still use metals with natural patinas, but try to stay away from pieces which will not stand the test of time,” she says.

One of her notable works is called It Is...What It Is, a sphere made up of about 800 steel rings. Plexiglass and metal winglets (or blades) protrude from the orb, which harness the wind’s power to propel it into a spin. The piece incorporates found objects such as her grandmother’s serving tray and a wok. It took about two months to construct. It’s one of the most challenging products she’s undertaken because it wasn’t stationary.

“It needed to be perfectly balanced in order to rotate freely. Luckily, my dad, Robert Ballew, a retired welding instructor himself and one of my idols, was my engineer on the project and helped me get the balance right,” she says. “The pivot point was so small compared to the overall dimensions of the piece, which was over 7 ft. tall and over 12 ft. wide.”

Sourcing the material for the kinetic sculpture brought Ballew another challenge that’s not unique to women: When Ballew went to a local scrapyard to buy 

the rings for her sculpture, the workers wouldn’t take her seriously and initially wouldn’t sell her metal even though she showed up in her welding clothes.

“[I am] not sure I will ever prove the guy at the scrapyard wrong, unless he reads this article and sees the sculpture I made with the 800 scrap metal rings I bought from him! Most of the time, people think I am merely the designer, not actually doing the work myself,” she notes.

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Fitting the part

In April, at its latest observation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted roughly 257,800 women employed in metal fabricating-related jobs in the United States. That’s the highest level since January 2012, where the BLS counted 250,500 women employed by the industry. That figure represents a steady gain from the pits of the Great Recession, which means more women are getting involved in metal fabricating. Ballew hopes to motivate other women to weld.

“I get a lot of questions and intrigue from women, actually. You would be surprised at how many of them ask me to teach them! A big challenge is that my studio is in North Carolina, and I live in South Florida. There is too much zoning and [too many] restrictions where I live in Florida,” she says. 

More welding programs are being offered at community colleges and trade schools, and some even focus on attracting female students.

“I think women would be more apt to learn from another woman as we speak the same language,” she continues. As a markswoman, Ballew teaches women the basics of firearm safety, gun etiquette, range etiquette, weapons terminology and practical usage. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the husband, brother or boyfriend takes the poor gal to the range and puts ear muffs on her. She can’t hear his instructions, nor has he briefed her on anything before they even arrived at the range! Teaching welding to women is very similar in that you need a relaxed environment so they can be receptive to being exposed to potentially dangerous situations.”

Fear is the main reason why women don’t get involved with welding, if you ask Ballew. It’s the fear of the unknown and fear of making a mistake. She too, at first, was paranoid about MIG welding because of the electric current involved. “I was always sure I was going to electrocute myself. My dad still teases me about this,” she says.

Still, Ballew understands welding remains a male-dominated profession in which women often feel out of place. “The message I would have for women is that you don’t have to be a tomboy to be a welder. You just have to be patient, persistent and a hard worker.”

Her resume in the white collar world, with a keen eye for design, has let her keep one foot in graphics consulting and the other firmly planted in metalworking art.

Most folks look at welding as a serious, dangerous activity and forget to look at the magic that happens right in front of their eyes. “As kids, we used to dream of having a magic wand that we could use to transform things. Turns out, as adults, a welding torch is the closet thing I have found out there that fits the part.” FFJ

Sources

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