"Someone called me a Renaissance man of the making-things world,” said Thor Sigstedt as he ran his hand over a bizarre black sculpture. “I call myself a natural artist.” A stack of fist-size globules forms the “trunk” of the treelike sculpture, and he cast them using a favorite fruit from a sprawling native plant in the squash family.
“I have a fetish for buffalo gourds, so I use them a lot in my sculptures,” Sigstedt said. “I can pour cast-iron using them and I don’t need to make a mold. You can stack them and feed the metal into them with dried cholla [a skeletal cactus common in New Mexico]. I figured out a technique where you wrap cholla with wet newspaper and rubber bands, then you pack that with a sand-clay mixture and a little moisture, and I pour it. It’s a reactive mold because it changes. It’s not just pouring the metal to fill the mold — it’s burning some of the material out.”
A number of the sculptures on his 40-acre property in lower Cañoncito have sections of buffalo-gourd castings. Outside his studio, one has prongs on which he impales fresh or dried gourds. “The pack rats and the ground squirrels steal them,” he said with a laugh. Another cholla-cast sculpture has a sporadic, organic-looking character, with an assortment of cast gourds and spires that are only casually contained by a looped piece of metal.
“I consider myself an outsider artist. But what I started doing, which is kind of declassé for a fine artwork, I’ve put a little whale figure down in there. So now I’ve suggested that this is more like a mockup for a huge sculpture, and the whale would be full-size. This is a little funky sitting here like this, but it would make a really cool huge piece of art.”
On Feb. 28, Sigstedt joined other molten-metal-art enthusiasts in the biennial Iron Tribe event at New Mexico Highlands University. “Originally, I was studying with David Lobdell at Highlands. They’ve got a major foundry and I have a piece in the gallery down there. I cast more buffalo gourds in a ‘reaction mold’ at the iron pour, which is very dramatic and something of a hit for us all.”
While there, he made a mold of a plaster dinosaur created by his wife, Belle Ponder, and cast it in grey metal. “I also participated in the production pour, which had around 100 participants from all over the globe,” he said. “I think I am the oldest participant in these groups, and it all keeps me youthful-minded and in touch with the younger generations of hands-on artists.”
Sigstedt was born in 1952 in Colorado Springs and grew up in Idyllwild, California. At the age of ten, he and a friend built a two-story house out of “a bunch of old boards,” as he recalls in an online biography. “Later, I lived with a family that had decided to build an adobe chapel on their property, so I lived in the back room and helped them build it for over a year. I built a real house around a 30-foot trailer, named The Pink Palacio, and it got in a color glossy coffee-table book about early American solar homes.”
The stepson of Ken Kern (author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Builder’s Guide to Stone Masonry), he went on to gain experience laying brick floors and adobe walls, learn woodcarving, and make custom furniture. He increased his knowledge of design during the few years he studied in the architecture program at the University of New Mexico. With his first wife, he bought the Cañoncito property, which includes a half-mile of Galisteo Creek.
Sigstedt practiced controlled grazing with his donkeys, helped write the Watershed Restoration Action Strategy document for the Galisteo Creek Watershed, and “pretty much singlehandedly got this stretch of creek to be described as a ‘high-quality cold water’ reach,” he said. He raised three children and two stepdaughters and remarried in the mid-1990s. He and Ponder built their photovoltaic house using natural and recycled construction materials.
He expanded from furniture and woodworking into ironwork, welding, and rustic stick sculptures, which were exhibited at Linda Storm’s Canyon Road space, Last Gallery on the Right, about six years ago. “At that time I had started making bronze and cast-iron and I had these sculptures from molds that I’d made out of sticks,” Sigstedt said. Our conversation paused as the Amtrak train from Chicago rolled by, just a stone’s throw to the northwest. “You can’t tell the difference from the wood unless you touch it.” Asked about patina, he replied, “I didn’t go too fancy, usually just the liver of sulfur,” a chemical mixture metalworkers use to achieve patina.
The artist built his own foundry. He used it to cast every piece for a dazzling stick-form bronze balustrade, one of many features he did for the 2006 Crescent House built by Mike Fischer on Camino Tierra Alta. Harry Leippe, a former Highlands University art professor who built the school’s bronze art foundry, gave him his bronze-casting furnace. “Here’s my jib crane. This is my burnout oven,” Sigstedt said as he walked around the outside of his shop. “I love tools. Here’s an old asbestos-shingle cutter and I can use it to texture things. Here are some railroad spikes. Here’s an anvil I made of a group of buffalo-gourd castings.”
Sigstedt has been all over the country for iron pours. Among his more far-flung travels was a trip he made to Sweden to view a royal barge that was carved by his grandfather, Thorsten Sigstedt. That story relates to a remarkable piece in Sigstedt’s shop: Mormor (Swedish for grandmother), a figurehead that was salvaged from a sunken Swedish ship in the Baltic Sea and was given to Thorsten before he emigrated from Sweden to the United States.
The figurehead was in 25 pieces. Thor Sigstedt began restoring Mormor by welding open-ended ovals of rusty rebar together and “got them to kiss each other inside Mormor’s body cavity,” he says in a written statement, “so that they grew inside her belly and chest into their own sculptural reality ... I decided to let the rebar stick up a little past the shoulders as a sort of post-modern, personal statement of what was happening.”
The drama of the figure is accentuated by a long void on one side of its face. The artist did nothing to change the colors and age marks on Mormor’s surface, only applying a salubrious finish of Clapham’s beeswax.
During a pause, a train went by going the other way, from Los Angeles. “Another thing we do,” Sigstedt said with a burst of enthusiasm, picking up a buffalo gourd. “We go up on the railroad tracks, one guy has a bat, and we pitch them to each other. It’s the most fun game in the whole world. I call it buffalo ball. I think the Indians probably did it, too, because nobody in their right mind, once they know a little about these, wouldn’t invent buffalo ball.”
I helped him carry a hefty plank to Galisteo Creek. After crossing the energetic stream on it, we walked to another of the five structures Sigstedt built, this one his “Japanese tea house.” Inside is the Nichos piece he created, with the help of artist Nate Metheny, for the 2016 Currents New Media Festival. He made another building on the property using straw-bale construction. “They’re all a little different,” he said. “I built four houses around trailers and one we have here was built around a school bus.”
When he says “we,” he means Belle, who is an artist, too. “She’s a natural,” her husband said. Ponder teaches at the Children’s Garden Montessori and before that she founded Santa Fe Pre-School Inc. and taught there for 20 years. She also worked as a therapist with YouthWorks and the Santa Fe Rape Crisis & Trauma Treatment Center. The two of them enjoy dancing. “We two-step and waltz and schottische. We go to Bill Hearne and Michael Hearne and The Rifters and all those guys.”
Sigstedt had triple-bypass heart surgery a year and a half ago, but in mid-February he said in an email that he’s having the time of his life. “Belle and I dance at La Fonda and other venues ... I am having my poetry read on the radio ... I am jamming with my guitar in hand with Joe West and friends every Sunday at Mary’s Bar in Cerrillos till St. Patty’s Day.” He’s also writing a column titled “Waltzing With Rattlesnakes” for The Corridor news magazine.
In the near future, he will be hosting events at his property in Spirit Valley — he likes that name better than “lower Cañoncito.” There will be a walking tour, a foundry pour, and, perhaps in the spring, the fourth in a “Raku Ruckus” workshop series that he co-hosts with artist Dean Howell. “We also show movies, usually Westerns, on a big screen that we lean up against the water-pumping windmill tower.”
Watch for these events at thor-sigstedt.blogspot.com; his website, adventuretrailsranch.com; and his Facebook page, where you can see a clip from March 10 titled, “Hog heaven playing with Bill Hearne, Joe West, and Tim Arnold!” ◀
▼ Thor & Belle’s Splish Splash Bash
▼ 2 p.m. April 27
▼ Adventure Trails Ranch, 82 Spirit Valley
▼ No charge; 505-466-4403, adventuretrailsranch.com