Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spotlight on Tobias Lawson, The Creative Force Behind Custom Aesthetics LLC

“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people” 
– Leo Burnett

My senior year at Ohio University I took a class in metal sculpture. I was working on an art major and had done a lot of painting and creative work in Seigfried Hall, the five-story art building where Professor Aethelred Eldridge, an avant-garde painter, famously overpainted one of his murals beneath the entranceway arch. The metal sculpture classes, however, were conducted some distance from there in a completely different part of town.

I mention this because after having hung out with artists who primarily drew and painted, it became readily apparent that the cats who expressed their creativity by means of soldering, welding, cutting torches, pouring molten metal into molds and the like were a completely different breed of animal. Memories of that class came flooding back as I got to know Tobias Lawson through his stories below.

I met Lawson through an exceptionally creative mutual friend. Like many artists, Lawson is also entrepreneurial. Unlike the artists who work in two dimensions, he produces products in three, the heart of his business currently being attractive, and efficient, firepits. Here's his story.

EN: When did you take an interest in being entrepreneurial?

Tobias Lawson: I started my own business shortly after college. I was part of a collective studio with people I met at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. We had a large studio and shared the cost of tools, as well as work space. For about three years I cobbled together jobs as a metalworker. I built gates, railings, benches, anything my clients wanted. Each job was different hence my business name- “Custom Aesthetics”.

EN: Can you briefly describe your career up to this point?

TL: Yes, I think I can summarize my career to date. Thanks for asking. When I was about 15 I started working construction jobs. I always had money as a teenager. I continued working construction throughout college, eventually working my way up to finish carpentry. When I was in school for fine arts sculpture I realized that I was sick of working with wood and wanted to work with metal. I started my own business early, but quickly became tired of my clients who neither understood what they wanted, or liked my prices. I remember one time I had a client who had worked with an architect, a designer, some of my fellow colleagues, and finally they handed her off to me. I was always capable of finding what people wanted whether they were artistic or not.

Every job I did, no matter the price, I lost money. A friend told me that I should apply for the science museum. He told me I would fit right in. So I did. I worked for the Science Museum of Minnesota for 8 years as an exhibit fabricator. I loved this job. I thought I would retire there, but alas they lost a big contract and I got laid off. Two months went by, I got a job as an aluminum tig welder. That lasted about two months, then they lost another big contract. I got laid off again.

Tired of counting on big business to support me, I cashed out my retirement fund and rewired my garage for 220 volts, set up a welding shop and went back to an idea that I had tried out years ago. Now I make fire pits. I think they are the best fire pits you can find.

In conclusion, I am a welder, a machinist, and an artist who dabbles with engineering, architecture, philosophy.

EN: Where did the idea of making fire pits come from?

TL: Frankly from fine art. You see at the time I was working full time at the science museum during the day, and at night I would oversee the College of Visual Arts sculpture studio. I would give welding demonstrations, teach students how to build stretchers for canvas, and wax philosophical with them if time allowed. But, some of the time no students at all would be in the shop, so I would work on my own stuff. I built a 9 foot by 12 foot folding origami sculpture out of an old dumpster plate that was 3/16” thick. I thought it would be good for the kids to see or learn about what I knew. A few of them were interested, but I managed to finish this large-scale sculpture, and I had a bunch of triangular off cuts left over. I put them all together and they formed a bowl. I figured I could light a fire, so I put some legs on it, and brought it over to the Grotto, which was a space for sculpture that I was helping to build. It worked so well I decided to refine it, and -- Voila! -- the Firefly was born. I got investors and built four more of them. Everyone loved them, they worked great, but I didn’t have time to pursue it. That was five years ago.

EN: When you were a kid, did you play with fire? Any stories about that?

TL: Yes, I have two brief stories. One involves gasoline, one involves Napalm.

The first story was when I poured some gasoline on my dirt driveway when my parents were gone. I poured a little bit into the freshly graded class five and lit it with a match. This is when I learned that you cannot stamp out a gasoline fire. In fact, if you try to stamp it out, you will probably light your foot on fire.

The second story is when I was a little older and had a friend who was also interested in fire. We made Napalm. It was easy. Shave soap flakes into a pot on the stove. They melt like butter. Then mix with whatever type of flammable liquid your dad has. Gasoline. Not too many people understand what Napalm is, but I do, and so does my friend M. Napalm is the same as gasoline, except it sticks to stuff. It is like making a Molotov cocktail out of silly putty.

Thank god that me and M. never got hurt. We had no ill intentions toward anyone, but we experimented nonetheless. I could go on about me and M. but let’s just say I’m glad we are still here, and no one got hurt.

EN: When you were in college what did you study, what types of things have you created?

TL: When I was at Minneapolis College of Art and Design I quickly realized that I was interested in fine art sculpture. I took painting, drawing, color theory, art history, etc… but I have always wanted to be a true fine art sculptor. While I was in school I had the opportunity to weld, cast, machine, critique my fellow students, but even at art school, I felt like an outsider. I was not rich, I was not hip, I was always in-between my peers. I have cast gold, aluminum, bronze, brass. I have made huge sculptures out of I-Beams that you can ride on. Structural. My favorite piece that I made was a stack of 2x4s. There were four of them. I made metal brackets to join them end to end, but at a slight angle. I stood them up end on end, and secured them with wires so they would not tip over. It was a tall gangly tower, very thin, very tippy, yet taller than the school I went to. I stole these 2x4s from a nearby construction site. I had no money for materials. They were sixteen feet long each, and when stood end for end in the sky reached 64 feet, taller than the robust college they stood next to. But my favorite part about this sculpture was cutting the guy wires and letting it fall like a great tree. The force was so great at the top that the 2x4s simply shattered like toothpicks when they hit the ground.

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For more information or to make a purchase, visit https://www.fireflypits.com/
Tobias Lawson's firepits are also available for purchase here in Duluth at Duluth Grill.

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Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it. 

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