Plumber-turned-artist takes fire-breathing dragon to ArtPrize

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Taylor artist Keith Coleman’s got a thing for big, metal animals. 

He crafted the pensive bull that guards Wyandotte’s Merrill Lynch office. He created the large metal bear outside Wyandotte’s Roosevelt High School, and a moose and 13-foot alligator on Grosse Ile.

Now he’s given life to a 12-foot-tall, fire-breathing metal dragon that he’s taking to ArtPrize next month. 

“I’m guessing the dragon weighs about 2,000 pounds,” Coleman said. “It’s all made out of recycled hot-water tanks. We’re guessing there are about 3,000 hand-cut pieces on it.” 

Hot-water tanks, you say?

Taylor artist and metalworker Keith Coleman with his 12-foot fire breathing dragon on Thursday.

Well, Coleman took an interesting path to becoming a full-time metal artist. He did plumbing for 30 years, as well as a lot of work custom-building hot rods and motorcycles. 

Both trades turned out to be excellent training for an art career, and crafting the fearsome beast that now looms in Coleman’s tree-shaded driveway, just waiting to terrify the masses in Grand Rapids. 

The dragon was a yearlong project Coleman undertook with his partner, cake-decorator Suzanne Carol. In many ways, it was an artistic collaboration.

“She cut the dragon’s scales,” Coleman said, “and designed the fins on the back, the eyes and the teeth.”

Carol piped up: “And the hands. I’m like, ‘No, those don’t look like hands. You need supervision.’ “

Coleman estimates there are between 12,000 and 15,000 welds holding the dragon together. “That’s unbelievable,” he said, “even to me.”

The dragon’s all metal, with the exception of his eyes. “They’re little dessert bowls,” Carol explained. 

Everything is recycled, from the oval scales she carved out of water tanks with a plasma cutter to the exhaust-pipe snake the dragon is holding, and regarding with an unfriendly gaze. 

Which raises the question — just what kind of dragon is this, anyway?

“He’s kind of scary,” Carol offered, which you might say about anything that can belch out several feet of propane-fueled fire.

“I don’t know,” Coleman said. “It just depends on how people react to him.”

Carol tilted her head to regard the statue. “On the other hand, he’s kind of smiling,” she said. “He’s happy in a weird way.”

This isn’t the first time a fire-breathing dragon has stared down Grand Rapids. Detroit artist Ryan C. Doyle entered a much larger, mobile beast mounted on the frame of a 1963 Dodge W300 dump truck in 2013.

Nor, for that matter, is this Coleman’s first love affair with a dragon. In 2010, he crafted a smaller version that eventually got sold. 

“A high school in Tennessee bought that,” he said, “for another mascot-thing.”

For her part, Carol thinks the present dragon reflects the fact that Coleman’s been missing the little guy who went south. 

“I used to rent him out to festivals, grand openings, advertisements, and things like that,” he said. “We’ll do the same with this one till someone makes us an offer. That’s what happened last time — a lawyer called and said, ‘You still got that dragon?’”

They’re calling the present version Big Brother, for lack of a better name. But they think they’ll ask ArtPrize visitors to submit names, and then pick a winner. Coleman likes the participatory nature of the exercise, which has “ArtPrize” written all over it, and thinks it might help in the popular votes that determine who goes home with the big money ($200,000 first prize).

The 12-foot-tall, fire-breathing metal dragon is made of about 3,000 hand-cut, recycled metal pieces and weighs about 2,000 pounds.

The dragon will be displayed outside Grand Rapids’ B.O.B. (“Big Old Building”), at 20 Monroe Ave. NW. 

“It’s one of the main hubs,” Coleman said of the venue. “Past winners have come out of there.”

He’s certainly hoping his latest dragon might turn the same trick. But first he’s got to get him to Grand Rapids. 

They’ll take off his wings, and then roll him onto a 20-foot trailer and strap him into place for the big trip to ArtPrize. The dragon has to be in place, he said, by Sept. 9. (ArtPrize runs from Sept. 19-Oct. 7.)

“About 2 feet of his tail hang off the trailer,” Coleman said, “so I’ll have to build a little extension.” All in all, trailer and dragon should provide quite a sight for traffic on I-96. 

Coleman laughs. 

“It’s going to be a circus, parade and zoo, all wrapped up in one.” 

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