Man of steel

Mention John Werden’s name to local artists, and you’ll hear about a best friend, the pushiest personal trainer, a sage professor, a drill sergeant, the Marlboro Man, a savior and the dad you’re ceaselessly trying to impress. But it’s better to see the reactions. “The Unc!” bellows an artist-type named Mark in a downtown bar. With a big grin, he grabs his buddy by the shoulder and squeezes hard. “Of course I know him.”

Werden’s got muscle in Detroit’s art scene, but the public doesn’t know him. The problem is he’s not a showoff. Getting him to tell tall tales of an adventurous life is like pulling teeth. Actually, he’s even pulled teeth — hammered them out with a mallet back when he was in the Air Force in Germany. The point is, the man’s got stories. But the past doesn’t interest him.

As owner of Detroit Blowpipe and Sheet Metal Inc. for 35 years, Werden earns his living by industrial fabrication and installation, primarily ductwork for factory ventilation systems. For him, it’s routine to dangle above acid tanks, walk on I-beams 200 feet in the air (sans Fear Factor-esque harness and safety net) and withstand heat that literally burns your pants off.

You can see and hear Werden’s pains of labor. He sniffs and grunts from all the cement he’s inhaled through the years, and it’s a challenge to ignore the 4-inch gash on top of his head. But it’s especially hard not to follow Uncle Russ’ rough and dirty hands while he speaks. His pointer finger is lined by a thick-skinned split of red, covered by a Band-Aid that’s been through its own war. But he dismisses this wound in a raspy voice: “Oh, that’s nothing. It only looks like that ’cause I didn’t have my sutures with me. Usually I’d sew it right up.”

Life and work have turned him into a hardass; saltiness is to be expected.

The Unc’s never been one to tell it, but he’s got a softer side. You wouldn’t know it, but his metal stamp is on dozens of sculptures around the city — on university campuses, and in parks, museums and parking garages. For decades he has contributed materials and equipment from Detroit Blowpipe, along with his knowledge and time, to local art projects. He does it for free, even at the risk of his bottom line.

Werden calls it “BYOM” — bring your own metal — but artists don’t have to; they use his scraps instead. He doesn’t get paid for his efforts and rarely gets recognition, yet he’s worked on prominent public artworks: “The Entrance” in Harmonie Park, the “Sentry” masks at the Charles H. Wright Museum and “Helping Hands” in Greektown are three he’s crafted or counseled into fruition.

Born a Virgo in September 1944, Werden, 60, is one of six children from a “poor white trash Swedish immigrant family” in Detroit. The stories of his childhood stop at that. His good friends know spotty details that come up in conversation, and suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty. Some of it seems worse than bad. But he’s proud and won’t speak of it. Asked about growing up, he’ll only tell of leaving.

At age 15, Werden spent summers hitchhiking across the nation. It was a lifestyle influenced by the words he worshiped, stories by Jack London and John Steinbeck. While other kids stopped at reading or perhaps outfitted themselves in the blue-collar costumes of their idols, he lived it.

“I’d just take off and end up at a bus station in the middle of the night, fending off the pedophiles. Once I remember having to sleep in a restroom because this guy kept crawling underneath the stall door. I was trying to stay awake because this cab driver was trying to put the make on me. … Before I graduated, I’d logged some 2,000 miles around the country — to New York City, Florida, Wyoming, Texas, out West and Canada.”

Uncle Russ looks tough now, with his weathered skin, fit body and appropriately steel-blue eyes, but in high school he was puny. Still, danger’s never scared him. It takes an eyewitness to report he’s slashed the tendons in his hand. His son John, now co-owner of Detroit Blowpipe, says his dad bangs his head pretty hard a few times a day. But it’s all part of a job where merely watching what you’re doing is a great threat — it’s called welder’s flash. One unprotected glance at the bright ultraviolet light causes blisters to form on the eye.

Werden has a huge heart but doesn’t like to make it that obvious. So it’s meaningful when he lets it out, allowing himself for a moment to seem — God forbid — even a bit melancholy. This happens when he talks of his ex-wife.

“I married my high school sweetheart when I was 19, after returning from the Air Force in Germany. We were together for four and a half years and had two children before she asked for a divorce. I never would have broken up with her. … She looked like Ann-Margaret. She was too beautiful for me. … She should have married Fabio.”

The divorce left him disenchanted. It was the early ’70s; he’d already missed the late ’60s haze of excitement, but free love appealed to him. So did the idea of exploring the world and experiencing other cultures.

“I did a flip-flop and became a hippie, wore headbands with peace symbols, gaudy jewelry and elephant bells, and bought a ’55 Volkswagen microbus with six speakers and an 8-track system.” He also got some experience working at his brother’s industrial shop, and soon thereafter decided to open his own. But he got restless and wanted to skip town. “I laid off the five people working for me, paid child support and left town with 100 hits of acid.”

After five months roaming, visiting a girlfriend in San Francisco and sexing it up along the way, Werden returned to Detroit. That’s when he earned an affectionate reputation as “the hippie,” given to him by Harold Chapel, chairman of Ring Screw Fasteners (now part of Textron), one of his clients. At one of his first jobs, the maintenance crews whistled at his wear and he retorted, “Screw you rednecks.” They didn’t respect him till they saw him walk into the burning hole of fire like it was nothing and finish the job quicker and better than anyone else. His reputation for immaculate craftsmanship and overall efficiency got him far, and allowed for a loose lifestyle, the way he wanted it. “If I decided to take a trip, they’d wait for me. When I got back there’d be jobs lined up for me.”

Metro Times Editor Ric Bohy worked with the Unc during the early ’70s, on and off, while he was in college. Werden happened to be dating Bohy’s future sister-in-law and Bohy needed the money. He recalls they worked at a cement plant near the Ford Rouge Plant.

“There are two kilns, which are massive iron tubes. You put cinder in one end and bake it … and it comes out crushed. There was an iron catwalk in between the kilns that had cracks and pieces missing, so we got the job to fix it. But they wouldn’t shut down while we were working, so they’ve got iron tubes heated to a thousand degrees and it was the middle of summer. … The measure was literally when the soles of your shoes would start to smoke, you leave and cool off. … But it was so hot in there I took off my jacket and rolled up my sleeves. … I’d burned the insides of my forearms to the point where they were all blistered, then they joined together into one huge blister on each arm, broke and dried out, in one day. … That’s the work he does over and over and over again.”

You have to be an odd sort of person to take a job with the Unc. It’s good money, but risky. Over the years, he’s hired ex-cons and junkies. Some of the college kids just couldn’t cut it.

Around that time, Werden met John Piet, a local artist in-the-know, and they became good friends. Piet introduced him to the Cass Corridor scene and the two of them partied hard. (Matter of fact, Piet’s painted steel piece, “The Entrance” in Harmonie Park, from the mid-’70s, was one of the first projects Werden helped out on). Piet recalls, “The days were hot and the nights were hotter, those days before incurable diseases.”

In many ways, Werden lives like the artist most artists want to live like, prone to dramatic chapters and tragic episodes. But he doesn’t whine about it later. He has done every drug for sale, but drinking was his armor of choice. “I drank because I lacked the confidence. … If I knew I was going to go dancing, I’d drink to loosen up, or if I knew I was going to be in a physical or verbal altercation, I’d drink for courage.”

It’s surprising to hear him say he doesn’t have guts once he explains a normal day on the job, for example, cleaning dust out of silos. It sounds tedious, but it’s a reason why friend Robert Sestok calls him “King of the Cowboys.” Over time, cement stored in silos clogs passageways, so someone needs to get in there and clear it. The Unc lowers himself by rope from the top of a couple-hundred foot structure. He sits on a boatswain’s chair, a small wooden board rigged as a seat. Using a handheld jackhammer, he drills the cement off the walls. But every time he hits the wall, the force of the jackhammer propels him, sending him flying. So essentially the job is to swing around; when he bashes into the wall he drills it. Werden has literally put a price on his life, taking the jobs others consider too unsafe.

Oddly enough, it was his first experience skydiving from 12,000 feet that made him realize he had nerve, and drugs were unnecessary. But what really stopped him from drinking was putting his head through a windshield. He crashed his car one night, right around Detroit Blowpipe. Remarkably, he survived, and quit drinking after that. He has since counted 16 years of sobriety.

There’s a stereotype that people who abuse drugs are lazy and apathetic, but often it’s the easiest escape for those with too much energy and nowhere to put it. He says, “Everybody has an insane part of themselves that lies within. But we need inhibitions.”

Werden’s a wild animal, even sober, but especially when he works. The Detroit environment where Detroit Blowpipe is located suits him. On the west side of Van Dyke, rust bleeds down cars as they drive by, and crumbling brick scabs old buildings. On the street’s east side, there’s something mystical about Mt. Olivet Cemetery’s rolling hills of quietude. The graveyard looks more alive than the rest of the neighborhood. The two sides seem to echo Werden’s complex duality: He fights for his life while living like he’s dying.

Turn down a side street, and the imagery shifts a little. The scene surrounding Blowpipe is more like a ghost town from an old Western, replete with tumbleweed. Most of the small machine shops that once formed a busy district are closed and boarded up.

But walking inside Detroit Blowpipe’s is like crashing an industrial frat house — worn magazines featuring silhouettes of the female body share space with strewn clipboards and smudged paperwork. Doors are curtained with jean and dirty flannel; music blares from the radio; and a few young guys, including Werden’s son John, 36, are working with loud tools, occasionally pausing for smoke breaks.

The small facade of the building is deceiving because the shop is a deep space with a big back room, between the size of a large garage and small warehouse. The work area is full of snaking hoses, bulky equipment for welding and shearing, chimney-long rolls of metal, and a wide expanse of table space. But something quite extraordinary is in the background — it looks like a meteor has landed.

It’s art — specifically, a large-scale metal sculpture in progress by artist and Wayne State University student Matt Blake and Enis Sefersah, a former Detroiter who lives in Brooklyn. There’s another art piece on the side of the room that looks like a giant robotic arm. It’s Taru Lahti’s North Corktown kiosk, one of six commissioned by Greater Corktown Development Corporation. When you really look at it, Detroit Blowpipe starts to look more like a studio than a shop. Werden’s front office is cluttered, but it’s an extraordinary gallery of Detroit artists: a playful metal object by Ed Sykes, a cubist sea of watercolors by Jerome Ferretti and art glass by Karen Sepanski propped against a small window, nearly floating from the sun. Outside Werden’s office in a small workroom, there’s a standing sculpture by Chris Turner. It’s an iron forearm and hand wrapped by wire and buckled to a wooden post, blurring the artist’s struggle to create with the crucifixion — it’s man bound to honor God and it may be Turner’s best piece.

Since the early ’70s, dozens of artists have profited from the Unc’s knowledge of engineering, superior craftsmanship and unbelievable generosity. The list of names grows exponentially because talking to one who’s benefited means adding more names to the list. All Werden asks for is respect, possibly the occasional home-cooked meal. Perhaps he’s looking for the family he never had as a child. But he’ll blow off the sentimentality for more practical reasoning: “I can’t get rich anyway. I’m 60 years old. It’s too late to be a capitalist.”

The media loves to celebrate an art star, especially a young one, while the tribulations of an industrial fabricator seem flat in comparison. Local artists Turner and Blake, however, are more than eager to set the record straight on one count. Werden worked with them on the “Millennium Bell,” the 10-ton sculpture described as a giant fish head or two taco shells, pressing the hollow ground in Grand Circus Park. For four months, Werden spent so much time on that piece instead of doing his own work that he nearly went broke. When you bring it up to Turner, the sculptor drops to his knees and crosses his chest. “There is absolutely no way we could have done it without him.”

Detroit’s Department of Cultural Affairs gave the job to Turner and Blake in part because they knew Uncle Russ would help out. The boys had the idea, but not all of the knowledge or equipment to follow through. While occasionally managing egos and artistic differences, the Unc helped the guys build the piece, welding most of it. The three of them assembled and then disassembled the bell so the city’s Local 25 workers could erect it without difficulty. The contractors said it was the most efficient job they ever had, because the piece was pre-fabricated. When it made big news, most of the glory went to the artists.

Blake says, “Russ was the only person able to get the bell’s arches to stand.” Artists around town know he is an engineering whiz. Back when he was married, the financial demands on the family were great, so Werden dropped out of the University of Detroit, ditched his plans to become a dentist and started going to Lawrence Tech, studying engineering at night, teaching trigonometry soon thereafter, and even dabbling in economics and marketing at Wayne State. But he quit school before earning a degree in anything.

Most folks in the industrial business now work with CAD, a computerized process for mechanical and architectural drawing and design, but Werden is one of the few from the old school, sitting down with pen and paper to do the math. “He’s a mathematical genius,” artist Richard Bennett says. He met Uncle Russ 15 years ago while working on a design that involved compound radiuses. In the early ’90s, they came together again on “Sentry,” the masks above the Wright Museum entrance, which took about six months to complete. The Unc helped shape and weld the curved foreheads of the visages.

Blacksmith James Visti is a metals professor at the College for Creative Studies. “Any time a student has problems as far as abilities or even the school’s facilities, I call up Uncle Russ and he’ll say, ‘Send them over.’ He talks them through it, making sure they get the job done right.” George Gikas, president of Venus Bronze, an art conservation center, takes Visti’s point a step further: “Those industrial design students and metal artists are fighting between conceptualism and craftsmanship, and they don’t know their place, then they end up going to the real world and they can’t produce work. But the few that learn from Uncle Russ become good craftsmen.”

Artist Don Thibodeaux agrees: “Young kids have no idea who he is and what it takes to find someone like him. When you’re with him in the shop, not only do you work a lot, he’s a crusty old dude that teaches you how to not take shit from people. But he’s always there for you.”

The bigwigs need him too. In 2002, internationally known artist Rico Eastman was acting head of Cranbrook Academy’s metals program. Busy teaching, he was unable to finish “Nautilus,” a piece he had been working on for Pierwalk 2002 at Navy Pier in Chicago, a show juried by art critic Dave Hickey. Panicked, Eastman was referred to Werden, and the two of them hit it off while working for hours to finish the art. From his home in Santa Fe, N.M., Eastman says: “Russ had the equipment and enthusiasm to help me … as well as having a great spirit of adventure in the shop. He is a genuine, talented, real-world, real-time metal man, with a passion for art.”

The Unc has a distinctly artistic sensibility — he’s absolutely meticulous. For him, it doesn’t matter that a piece is destined for a factory, there’s no such thing as above and beyond what it’s supposed to be, in terms of craftsmanship. “Russ doesn’t just get the job done, he fabricates at the level of an artist,” Piet says. “His stuff is quite sculpted, really remarkable, while other peoples’ work is just nuts and bolts. If Russ ever made art, he’d wipe us out.”

Werden was sober by the ’90s, but perhaps as a test of will, he still hung out late, inviting friends over to his pristine riverfront high-rise apartment to drink from his stocked bar. Artist Jerome Ferretti was one of those guys. Over the years, they became close, taking several vacations together.

“Visiting the Statue of Liberty with the Unc is life-changing,” Ferretti says. Lady Liberty intrigued Werden because he knew it was put together before there was such a thing as welding, a marriage of two metal parts through extreme heat. As they walked through, he noted how it was put together with rivets, a sort of nail that bonds metal parts on two sides. Someone must have been hanging outside the statue, smashing the rivets in place. That thrills him — you can bet he wishes he were that guy.

Inside DetroiT Blowpipe, Werden slowly circles Blake and Sefersah’s meteor-like sculpture. (Actually, Blake describes it as a giant gum wrapper). Werden explains that the piece takes on multiple views when light hits it. He also casually mentions the artists intend to make six pieces. Once it’s finished, where do they intend to show art this size? He acts like it’s a stupid question. “At the MoMA.” He extends his confidence to those he cares about. Even if they aren’t, he’s sure that Blake and Sefersah’s work is headed for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Werden always thinks 10 steps ahead of the game, where artists need to be, if they want to finish first. But he throws in quick sarcasm: “Then if they become famous I’m going to shirttail them.”

For seven years the Unc lived downtown in a swank bachelor pad near the water, then moved to a loft in Eastern Market. Both were gorgeous spaces, enlivened by the strikes and curves of sculpture and jammin’ jolts of color on canvas, indicative of the local cult of personality he’s known. “I don’t own artwork that isn’t from a friend. And there’s a lot of it — in my office, at my house and even stored in my daughter’s basement. … Either I dated ’em, or I go on trips with ’em.”

Even though he speaks his mind, Werden worries about others. It could be one reason he’s had few long-term romantic relationships; he says matter-of-factly he doesn’t care about getting hurt, but he can’t stand hurting others. Around Christmas of 1999, he found out he had colon cancer. Two surgeries successfully removed it, but in between, he practiced suicide. It wasn’t about self-pity or fear. “I wasn’t going to allow myself to burden all the people around me and make the medical profession richer.” He also went out and bought a Corvette, thinking he wouldn’t have to pay the bills for long.

It’s a good thing he stuck around, because he’s an integral part in Detroit’s art scene, which over the years has had no choice but to become a self-built community based on bartering. Piet says, “If you ask to borrow a tool, Russ says, ‘Here’s three, keep them.’ … He’ll also move three tons of steel to give you one sheet.”

“I feel a certain degree of usefulness by helping the artists. It gives me more of an identity,” Werden says. “In the industrial world you’re nothing but a fixture, whereas working in this world you’re recognized for your ability to help, so people come to me for advice and instruction, about where to buy materials or the least expensive way of making something.”

His personal payback is that the arts offer a sense of longevity, but many would have hit bottom if it weren’t for Werden. When Gikas first opened up Venus Bronze, now a huge success with clients like the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook and the Indianapolis Library, he lent Gikas a couple of thousand dollars to keep it going. And when glass artist Karen Sepanski’s studio burned down, Uncle Russ helped her rebuild her kiln. But more importantly, he helped her suck it up and deal with her loss.

Sitting in Blowpipe’s cramped office, Ferretti tells the Unc to cover his ears for a moment. “Russ’ son John is an amazing welder. He’s better than his dad. The student always surpasses the teacher.” Meanwhile, Werden’s busy shuffling through papers in his desk drawers. He pulls out an old black-and-white headshot of his daughter, now 39. As a teenager, she modeled for a cosmetic surgery ad in the Yellow Pages, even though she never had cosmetic surgery. She looks like a young Debbie Harry, glossy-lipped, with longer, fuller hair. It’s hard not to wonder if looking at that photo reminds him of his ex.

Sometime last year, on his way to work, the Unc heard a radio ad for a Survivor casting call. Applications were due in a few days so he enlisted cinematographer Ben Hernandez and shot a three-minute video. Although he didn’t receive a callback (he may have missed the deadline), there’s no doubt he could out-sweat a rock-climbing gourmet chef and out-sass any bikini-clad blonde, though he wouldn’t mind those darlin’s.

The thing is he really could win. The Unc’s a perfect candidate. People like him because he’s social, someone to keep the community intact. He’s a hard worker and no risk is too big for him, so the teammates would want to keep him around. Plus, he’d have no problem dueling it out in the end.

But in his short video, the Unc plays a nice guy, working in the shop and touring the city, even frolicking in the snow. There’s a clip of him skydiving, yet there’s no real sense of the man who rules the world he’s helped build, from the factories blowing their lids every dawn and dusk to the monuments boasting a proud city.

Werden plans on applying again with a new video. If he gets on the show and wins, it’s not like he’ll quit working. He speaks as an artist, politician and patriarch, someone who understands his own power: “No, absolutely not … I’ll never retire.”

Survivor’s next round has his name on it. This time, the Unc will show them who’s boss.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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