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'It started out as a joke" and trying to "keep an open mind" by accepting a challenge from the owner of a local art gallery to create wearable art, but it wouldn't be long before metal artist Larry Irby, who has an extensive background in building custom cars by hand, would find himself bent on making stainless steel jewelry.

The Willis resident says, "Today, I have a whole new perspective on creating my wearable art pieces — a vision that, to this day, drives me to continue to harness the creativity that I possess."

The idea for making small metal pieces unrelated to building cars came about after Irby made four full-size stainless steel shoe sculptures, each designed differently. He showed the gallery owner's wife a picture of one shoe, which led to them selling another one later. "I couldn't believe they sold one steel shoe for $450," he says. Following the sale, the owner's wife inquired about him making jewelry, but he admits, "I probably rolled my eyes, as if to say, 'Yeah, right.' "

However, after looking through the jewelry-making book she gave him, Irby, keeping an open mind, took on the challenge. "I thought to myself, how ridiculous the idea of designing jewelry was, because I am a car builder, not a jewelry designer. I talked to some people who owned a bead gallery, and they said, 'Nobody is doing handmade stainless steel jewelry because it's too hard to work with.' " But as a joke, he made his first piece, a stainless steel cuff, using leftover material from some exhaust tips he'd just finished.

He's been creating wearable art ever since, and says, "Most stainless steel jewelry is done with machines, but mine are all hand-built. All the pieces are hollow with 3-D dimension, and they're welded together."

Irby buys sheets of stainless steel from Van Buren Steel & Fabricating in Belleville, and he works long hours daily inside his "little shop" in Milan, which he says requires driving past a cornfield in order to reach. The former pole barn, built in 1968, once belonged to his grandfather. Irby refers to it as "the best kept secret."

The prolific metal artist has spent the past 13 years hand-building a Bentley for a Michigan resident who pays him for 40 hours of work each week, and stops in regularly to check on his progress.

"I quit working on the Bentley every day, five days a week, at 4 p.m., and from 4-7 p.m. I work on my wearable art pieces," says Irby, who spent 15 years as an auto body paint and repair technician in California, while developing skills as a custom car builder. "On Saturdays and Sundays, I can get in about 10 or 12 hours each day working on jewelry. The last couple years, I haven't had a day off. People wonder how I can work so much and it's so intense. To do what I do is a blessing, and I'm pretty much kind of obsessed with it."

Each of Irby's wearable art pieces are a one-of-a-kind. Some designs are enhanced with bezel-set stones, and take hundreds of hours to complete. "My work is based off of the curvature and flow of the old car body lines of the past. It's not so much about wearing the pieces — it's more about the style, detail and flow that makes it art," he explains. His work is receiving accolades from the fashion, sculpture and music industries.

Five years ago, when he first began making wearable art, "a few people around here" were able to purchase his work for $400-$600 apiece. You might say they got a (stainless) steal of a deal. Since then, he's added more design details, causing his pieces to be "more complicated" to make. They now fetch anywhere from $400-$25,000 each.

So, what "started out as a joke" for this awe-inspiring metal artist probably has him laughing all the way to the bank!

Detroit News Staff Writer Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or jbrown@detroitnews.com. For more craft news and giveaways, visit her blog at detroitnews.com/crafts.

Contact Larry Irby at larryirby.com.

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