Denny Croston, backyard artisan, creates scrap-metal wonders

June 5, 2012

By Ilona Idlis

The artist collects railroad memorabilia and much of it is on display behind his house, including a restored 1921 Northern Pacific Railway caboose, traffic signs, light posts and a host of smaller items inside the railroad car itself. Photo by Ilona Idlis

Stepping inside Denny Croston’s world is as easy as walking onto his driveway.

The Issaquah artist’s home embodies all of the whimsy of his repurposed scrap metal sculptures. A visitor is immediately greeted by Poncho — a rusty gentleman with wrench arms and a “cute butt” — as well as army-helmet turtles and a horseshoe cactus before making it to the front porch. But the true wonderland is tucked behind the house.

Croston’s backyard is an eclectic medley of curiosities and creations. A huge red railroad car sits on the left, flanked by antique light posts and traffic signs. It took Croston two years to restore the 1921 Northern Pacific Railway caboose to its former glory and it’s the crown jewel of his railroad memorabilia collection.

Behind it, a shed teems with scrap-metal findings from junk yards and estate sales from all over Washington. A tree “yarn bombed” by local artist and friend Suzanne Tidwell casts shadows over the neatly trimmed hedges and fishpond on the right, while flowers made out of tractor parts peek through the greenery. Heaps of junk, rusting in the sunshine, punctuate the well-tended lawn.

A wire fence decorated with a flat, metal salmon marks the edge of Croston’s domain; the East Fork of Issaquah Creek gurgles beyond it.

Croston happily points out his newest find, a silver, oblong pod that’s overtaken his deck. It’s a fuel tank he picked up at his favorite scrap-metal sourcing spot in Moses Lake, but it won’t be one for long. Per the fuel tank’s “request,” Croston is transforming it into an orca whale.

“My junk speaks to me,” the artist explained. “It wants to go home with me.”

Objects speak to him

Croston lets his found objects dictate their yard-art reincarnations — a winding screw decided to be a dragonfly tail; a tossed door hinge returned as a butterfly. Years of practice have trained Croston’s eye for shape and utility, but the 65-year-old has had no formal art training.

“I can spot a bird’s head in a junk pile from a mile away,” he said, but “I can’t draw a stick figure.”

Croston began experimenting with found objects in the late ‘90s, inspired by successful scrap-metal artist and friend Dan Klennert.

“I was trying to get in Dan’s head,” Croston recalled. “How do you create this stuff?”

Klennert advised Croston to clear his head by listening to music and let the pieces “evolve” into new creations. Croston followed the advice and made his first piece, a grasshopper, while listening to instrumental sounds. Now, Croston gets his creative juices flowing by “putting plenty of volume on” and “entertaining the neighborhood” with feel-good, Celtic music. He then works and welds in his garage, maneuvering around tremendous piles of silverware, golf clubs, screws and sewing machines.

“Between your art and your music, it just takes you over,” he said. “It’s like I’ve got no control over it.”

Fortunately his wife, Penny, doesn’t mind the artistic clutter. More often than not, she falls in love with his pieces and they decorate their home.

“He builds them and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m keeping it!’” she said. “I try not to but it’s tempting.”

Commercial success comes late

Croston has created amazing pieces when possessed by an idea, working late into the night to make his signature propane-tank totem poles — his favorite. One towering example can be seen from the Mercer Island waterfront, and another sits in Croston’s van, surrounded by other creations and ready to display for curious visitors at a moment’s notice.

In a way, Croston has always been innovating within the confines of an existing structure. A sixth-generation carpenter, with Issaquah roots going back to 1893, Croston remodeled building interiors for most of his life. The skills translated well to yard art. Now that he’s retired, the hobby pays for itself.

Croston gained substantial commercial success and local recognition about seven years ago, when he started showing at the Issaquah ArtWalk.

“I judge my success by how many (business) cards I hand out,” he said.

With no storefront, Croston conducts most of his transactions in person. His website, www.dennysyardart.com, provides customers with examples of his work and contact information.

Croston joined artEAST, an Issaquah artist collective, two years ago and now his work is available for display and sale at the UP Front Gallery downtown. Patti Bondi, a gallery volunteer, said people come in asking for his pieces often and she counts herself among his fans.

“I just think it’s really charming,” she explained. “You can’t find too much that’s one of a kind nowadays. (He’s) utilizing things from the past to make something new and different.”

Croston’s latest piece is a glimmering heron made out of a car bumper and an exhaust pipe for the gallery’s “Rookery Project.” Creating the bird was a fun challenge for Croston, who stepped out of his rusty comfort zone by working with chrome objects.

He invites you to follow the “flock” as it travels around the Eastside this summer. Learn more about the project at http://arteast.org.

Ilona Idlis is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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