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Creative spark: A Lake Highlands mom's search for inspiration results in unique art

Oct 10, 2023

Jennifer Barrett owns and operates Ruthy's Metal Works in Lake Highlands. Photography by Julia Cartwright

If the prospect of metal-working conjures images of teen boys under Iron Man masks in shop class, sparks flying, that's not wrong. But the face under one local welding hood is that of a Lake Highlands mom pursuing a second career, an artist making one-of-a-kind sculptures, an entrepreneur operating her own business — Jennifer Barrett.

Barrett's Ruthy's Metal Works is a small neighborhood business specializing in commissioned art for residential and commercial spaces. Her portfolio — glimpses of it sometimes appearing on Instagram or TikTok — is diverse, featuring outsized iron sculptures that add whimsy to a beautiful-but-boring backyard, form-meets-function steel planters fit for small-scale succulent gardens or multi-paneled wall art showcasing the unique, vibrant effects of alcohol ink on metal.

The Lake Highlands High School graduate sacrificed sacred time she could otherwise have spent welding to speak with the Advocate about shifting vocations "later in life" and figuring out what inspires her.

What came before Ruthy's?

I’ve always been a creative person. I went to school for radio, film and TV at Baylor. So I worked a lot in that industry, the production side of small films, shows, corporate videos — which can be creative — but I always wanted to make things.

Shortly after I got married, my husband, Nathan, and I went to help out in his family's business. That entailed a lot of administrative work, and I started to feel like I needed a creative outlet. I started classes at the Creative Arts Center. I had always been drawn to metal sculpture, not sure why, and I had never done it, so I just started at the introductory class. The CAC is a neat place with all types of artists.

You started out with zero welding experience?

Right. They teach you to weld and cut metal and then, in the post-introductory class, you can go and make whatever you want to. That's where my interest really ignited. I started doing metal work on my own time, while also working as chief financial officer for the family company, and when my husband's parents ended up selling that business, it was a blank slate for me, and I said I’m going to try this, as an actual vocation.

Where did the name Ruthy's come from?

Ruth is my middle name, and everyone used to call me Ruthy when I was little.

Did you have the support of the family on this?

My daughter, Frankie, was 4 at the time. I set up the workspace in the garage. She's 11 now. And my husband encouraged me.

What has changed with the business from then to now?

That was in 2016. I went into it willing to just make anything anyone asked me to do. I worked with wood, metal, art, furniture — jack of all trades and master of none type thing. As I gained experience, I reigned that in a little. For a while, I made modern wall planters from steel that were sold to stores and individuals, but after a while that started to feel more mechanical and lacked the creative component that I wanted. There is something that came from an artist I really like, Lisa Congdon, who started her career later in life, and she said something along the lines of: "If inspiration doesn't come to you in a flash, you might have to go in search of it." That resonated with me. Finding that inspiration means discovering things that make you excited. So I started to try to just focus on making things that I liked, and that led to more interesting and creative pieces and playing with different mediums like alcohol ink — it kind of looks like colored water when you put it out, but you have an alcohol base. So you can set it on fire, and it moves in different ways.

Did you find the thing that excites you?

That search overall brought that creativity back to what I love doing. Today I do mostly commissioned work that inspires me. How it usually goes is: I meet with someone who has a space. Sometimes they have an idea of what they want, and we collaborate. Sometimes they just want to know what I think will go in there. It might be shapes or something that I paint in resin on steel. I have done things in frames where the whole entire inside is steel. I often land on some kind of wall sculpture as the thing I like the most these days.

And I suppose the search is ongoing?

I do like to work with what I know, but I also like to try different things. Like, in the interest of using the scraps, I may see a leftover piece and look at it and think about what I can do with that, so inspiration might come just from hammering at a shape and using that as an opportunity to experiment with different techniques. (In a recent video she describes a scrap as looking like a uterus before she cuts and hammers it into sheeny yin yang bowls.)

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.