Dustin and Lisa Sypher share a love for the creative arts. The 20-year couple who met in the halls of the University of Kansas Art History Department have been creating a unique brand of mixed media paintings and striking ironwork from their barn in Coldwater for the past five years. While the prolific couple has recently relocated to Pratt, they say their time amongst the rattlesnakes and sorghum fields has made an indelible impression on their work, and their lives.
"I was going to get my master's degree in art and had this chance to work at an actual blacksmith's shop," said Dustin. "When the tornado happened, it just kind of drew me back here. I spent a lot of time in Greensburg growing up, so there was a connection for me."
Working in a Carbondale, Colo., blacksmithing shop, creating fine-iron work for customers in Aspen, Dustin returned to Kiowa County following the May 4, 2007 tornado to volunteer with the clean up.
His family has a long history in Kiowa County.
Making the cross-country trek from Kentucky, his great-great-grandfather settled a corner plot in what was then a newly incorporated Mullinville. His great-grandfather Boone Pedigo was five years old when the family came to Kiowa County and became a successful blacksmith and well digger.
His grandparents "Buster" and Ovie (Pedigo) Sypher were both Mullinville natives. His father Charles was born in Mullinville, though he later moved the family to Ottawa after serving in the military.
After graduating from Ottawa High School Sypher took to sculpting, eventually earning his degree in sculpture from KU. He found his way to iron and blacksmithing through experimentation and a need to continue doing art, while paying the bills.
"I kept asking myself 'what kind of job can you get with an art degree?' I knew it was going to be a tough road. My professors were giving me books about blacksmithing. Michael Kruger, an associate professor of art at KU, introduced me to a friend that was a blacksmith. We went into this neighborhood where the houses were like eight feet apart from each other and this guy had a blacksmithing shop in his basement."
When he saw an ornamental gate, adorned with "found" iron and reclaimed implements, it was like a light bulb went off, he said.
"It hit me, there was a way to be creative and get paid for it. From there I started reading books about blacksmithing. There are no real blacksmithing classes, per se. I saw an avenue making a living doing ornamental ironwork. I found workshops, and some instruction and started to collect tools."
Sypher collects scrap iron, often from abandoned farmsteads, and creates a variety of ironwork.
He has created two distinguished pieces in Greensburg, a scrap iron bench that sits outside of the 5.4.7 Art Center, a project he did with the now-defunct Green Club, and a banister inside the Greensburg GreenTown Silo Home, made using reclaimed iron from the Schmidt Farm.
One of his favorite pieces is "Entwined," commissioned in memory of Mullinville farmers Bob and Evelyn Neier, the massive scrap iron fence made from pre-1940's farm equipment is part of the Downing Children's Garden at the Wichita Botanica.
"The beauty of that fence is when an 80-year-old man sits down, looking at that fence, he'll see a piece that reminds him of something from his past. He'll start talking about it and even though he's talking about "art" he doesn't realize he's talking about art. That same guy won't ever go into an art gallery because it's too frou-frou."
Lisa, who earned dual degrees from KU including a B.A. in early childhood development, began producing "free-form" artwork inspired by the teachings of Oregon artist/author Flora Bowley.
"Visual arts are healing, just like music," she said. "For me it was a way to try and connect with some distant parts of myself. I did traditional stuff for a long time and it wasn't very good. I never thought I could draw. Anytime I would draw anything resembling a picture, it would freak me out. It still does."
She said the isolation of living in Coldwater pushed her towards painting.
"I don't think I would have found my work if I hadn't lived there."
While trying to entertain a visiting friend, she broke out a set of paints and found inspiration.
"If I had lived in the city I would have been out and about. Sometimes you need to just sit and find it. I think my work is kind of my reward for sitting out there for 5 ½ years.
An English professor told me if I wanted to be a good writer I needed to live like I was in a prison block. I needed to sit down with my work. Be quiet and do it. There are a lot of great artists in the world, but if they don't sit down and do it, it'll never get it done. We always say that if we had been in Lawrence we never would have found it. We would have been in our little bubble and just gone on with our lives."
Lisa's work is mixed-media free flowing paintings. She adds layers upon layers until a picture emerges. She subscribes to Bolwey's artistic approach where "work is created through a unique process of spontaneously layering free flowing color and mark-making with carefully rendered organic forms."
The Syphers have work on display across Kansas and the Midwest.
Dustin has work on display in Alva, Okla., Hays and at his hometown art center in Ottawa. He has a show at the Meade Gallery in June, which he'll share with Lisa, and a show at the Carnahan Art Center in September.
Lisa's work is current on display inside a Yoga Studio in Wichita. She previously had a showing at Origin's Coffee House in Haviland and will have some pieces on display at the KU Medical Center. You can see more of their work at TallGrassForge.com
More photos can be seen at www.kiowacountysignal.com