And the People’s Choice award goes to …

Artist Stephen Menart’s steel piece “Hard Top” won the People’s Choice Award for the Membership Exhibition Wednesday at the Duluth Art Institute’s Gallery Celebration.

(“Hard Top” won the People’s Choice Award and curator Annie Dugan chats with artist Stephan Menart below. Photos courtesy of the DAI. )

Menart, who has his own blacksmith shop at his home in Biwabik Township, made each part of the turtle separately and special for the show: Forging steel into legs and a tail, using an anvil and hammer to create a shell, the mouth cut with a chisel and all welded together.

The turtle was colored with a bronze patina, which Menart applied with a brush.

Menart has had pieces in the Membership Exhibition for years, favoring animals. His pieces feature walleye, dragonflies, chameleons, sea turtles, a blue heron. He’s showed his work at the Minnesota State Fair and at summer festivals where he sets up his blacksmith shop and creates pieces in front of an audience.

“It was really an honor,” he said of winning the award. “I was really surprised.”

Menart said he spent part of the exhibition hanging out near his piece.

“I kind of like to stand in the shadows and watch how many people are attracted to it,” he said. “It sat in a cluster of two or three pieces and it drew a lot of attention. People were looking at it. One guy picked it up. I’m not sure you’re supposed to do that.”

“Hard Top” didn’t have a price tag at the show, but he said it is — and all of the art he makes — is for sale.

Menart got his start in welding while working at Erie Mining Co. and LTV Steel. He jokes that this was his art school, though he had to learn to deviate from the way he did things on the job.

“I was brought up on straight lines,” he said. “I went to work as a welder and it was all straight lines. I had to allow myself to do curves before I could do artwork. That’s what freed me to do what I do today.”

Menart already has a rough plan for what he’s entering in next year’s Membership Exhibition.

“I’m plotting,” he said. “I would say I’m leaning toward a reptile, and I’m not going to tell you what it is.”