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Spotlight: Scenery in steel

Put a former circus owner together with a master welder and what do you get?

Travel down Broadway in Jim Thorpe and across the street from the Old Jail, you’ll find a spectacular piece of metal art created by Dani Butala and Shawn McCarty.

The steel work that depicts a downtown cityscape, notable landmarks, a “Wonderland-esque trails scene, and a view of the overlook at Tank Hollow was commissioned by Jeff Cook, the owner of the High Street Guesthouse, which sits on the other side of the street from the jail.

“Jeff wanted something whimsical and nature-related,” said Butala, a resident of Tamaqua and a former owner of the Eclectic Circus, a troupe of 20 artists who performed in various festivals and parades in the area.

McCarty, formerly from Texas and a local resident since 2001, owns Kombi Welding and Contracting, a commercial and residential welding and fabricating business. He has known Butala for the past 10 years, and together they had set out to create the unique scenery to symbolize the fantastical imagery of the life and land that have become trademarks of the old Victorian community since the early 19th century.

Problem, pandemic alter the plan

Of course, COVID-19 had something to say about how long it would take for the project to be finished, but an unexpected incident derailed the railing even longer.

Soon after Butala and McCarty completed their sketches and calculations that would be installed between the top and bottom of the 20-foot railings, a car smashed into the front porch of the guesthouse, requiring that the concrete section be rebuilt.

“We had to remeasure the dimensions because the new porch was not exactly the same size as the old one,” McCarty explained. “Basically, we had to start all over again with a new plan.”

“Jeff told us he wanted ‘something different, and after the car smashed into his front porch, we also had to do something different,” said Butala with a laugh.

The labor to erect the couple hundred pounds of steel began at the end of 2019 and was just finished a few weeks ago with several delays occurring in between.

The nuts and bolts of metal art

Butala owned the Studio Strange, an art gallery in Jim Thorpe where she sold junk art, or what is called upcycled art in modern lingo. She creates characters from nuts, bolts and screws, car parts or anything else she might find lying on the roadside.

“My sons and I used to go on what we called rusty treasure hunts to look for things that could help me tell a story with metal pieces.”

When she had met McCarty, they were the perfect match to create metal murals that would attract tourists and local residents alike to want to commission their work.

“I learned how to weld while working on road crews in Texas,” McCarty said.

“When I lived on a farm, there’s always something metal to build or repair and recently, I built a metal bar countertop out of copper and steel that is in the Notch 8 Craft House on Broadway in Jim Thorpe.”

McCarty, who has installed several hundred feet of railings in the town, says his artistic ideas are “loose interpretations” of customers’ requests.

“I get a vision in my head, but sketching an idea on paper and then working with metal to make it look like a familiar scene or object is quite a challenge,” he said.

From rails to tales

Every piece of art, whether it be created with paint, with a camera or with a welding torch, tells a story.

As you look along the sequence of scenes in between the rails at the High Street Guesthouse, you see, well, as Butala says, you’ll see whatever interpretations you make that might be much different from those that were the visions of the creators.

From a primed and painted Victorian mansion to a black widow spider weaving its web in front of a mushroom fairy garden, your eyes travel to a big old tree with an owl perched inside a hole in the trunk.

Pine trees adorn a countryside vista and you have what might be called a potpourri of symbolic Jim Thorpe or you have whatever tale your imagination forges about the whimsical wonderland that attracts thousands of visitors each year.

A woman who used to swing a hula hoop while wearing stilts in a circus meets up with a man who moonlights as a musician in a band called Free Range Folk and together they have put their minds to the metal and created a beautiful piece of artwork that will sit center stage in the town of Jim Thorpe for many years to come.

Cityscape of downtown Jim Thorpe with train station and bridge to the east side with St. Joseph at upper right. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
A detailed look at a spider and its web. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Dani Butala and Shawn McCarty in front of the guesthouse in Jim Thorpe.
Owner Jeffrey Cook at his High Street Guesthouse.
The guesthouse with a relief view of the famous Lehigh River overlook as seen from Tank Hollow.