ST. JOHN | Steel made in Northwest Indiana frames cars, fills supermarkets with cans and forms countless refrigerator doors.
The metal also produces inspiration for local artists, including many whose works are on display at the Steeple Gallery in St. John.
Stroll through the Steeple Gallery, tucked back on an easily missed alley off U.S. 41, and you might think you had stumbled into a small museum of industrial art. Steel recurs as a theme throughout the fine arts gallery at 11107 Thiel St.
Metal sculptures both large and small fill the 4,000-square-foot former Central Assembly of God church. Paintings depict steelworkers toiling away and sculptures show lunch pail-toting construction workers perched on sky-high steel beams. Landscape painters portray smoky factories and rusted bridges the way Impressionists represented lilly pad-strewn ponds and fog-draped riverbanks.
There is more on display in the gallery of course, including hand-blown Italian glass, still-lifes and religious art.
But steel and industry are major motifs. Owner Samantha Dalkilic-Miestowski, who studied sculpture at Ball State University and at the Lacoste School of the Arts in France, has deep ties with the steel mills that ring Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Her father was a vendor for U.S. Steel, and her husband has worked for the steel industry for 17 years.
"Growing up in the '70s and '80s, most people you know worked in the mills," she said. "Having a structural steel environment definitely influenced me and had a lot to do with me getting involved with sculpture. Steel has a kind of permanency that I’ve always liked. It’s no-nonsense and serious."
Much of the work on display in her gallery reflects the region's steel heritage.
"This region was built on steel, on the work ethic of our grandfathers and forefathers," she said. "It's a different breed that comes from Northwest Indiana. It's not wimps, but meat-grinder people who work to get things done."
Dalkilic-Miestowski once dreamed of creating her own metal sculptures in a studio in a barn somewhere. Now she is a strong advocate for the hands-on art form.
Steeple Gallery has long devoted space to sculpture, even though gallery owners often sniff at the medium as what patrons back into when they are trying to look at paintings, Dalkilic-Miestowski said. She feels vindicated now industrial art is common in North Shore galleries and industrial home decor has become chic.
"Now more than ever, it's something you would see in Restoration Hardware," she said. "But how much of that is made in America? This art is made in the region using steel from around here."
A few of the artists she represents earn a living by working with steel. They are welders by day, and artists by whenever the inspiration strikes.
Sculptor Randy Simko started welding in his father's East Chicago shop when he was about 10 years old. He picked up pieces of scrap metal and welded them together to make new shapes.
The Dyer resident now earns a living assembling huge cranes for Chinese shipyards at Mi-Jack Products in Hazel Crest, but never stopped experimenting with scrap metal.
His wife insisted he should take one of his pieces to the Steeple Gallery, and he did. A patron bought it off him on the spot, and he now has 15 pieces there.
His work also is on display at Kennedy Metal Products in Schererville and at Lowell High School.
"I especially like working with steel because of its endless possibilities," he said. "There are so many different textures, finishes and presentations."
Lowell resident Mark Ruthkay is another welder whose sculptures are represented at the gallery. His work also is on display in Chicago and the art collection at Lowell High School.
Ruthkay learned welding and later nuclear welding after he went to work at a metals fabricating shop in Merrillville, where he started out loading trucks.
"If you've got the ability to weld, you can build almost everything," he said.
He crafts sculptures both with sleek stainless steel and with distressed patinas. He likes to make the metal look fluid and has, for instance, forged a dancer in motion.
Dalkilic-Miestowski estimates at least 75 of the pieces at the Steeple Gallery are in some way related to steel, whether forged from the metal or depicting local industry.
"The gallery has hundreds of prints, botanical engravings, old etchings, things are specific to people's tastes," she said. "But I would have to say that steel is the soul of the gallery."