Mountain Artworks is a studio in Mercer County that houses the unique flair, personality, passion, and dreams of metal sculptor Michael “Mike” Sizemore. Mike has a particular fondness for copper, but he uses all sorts of materials in his work, even recycled glass ashtrays. Like many artists, Mike keeps a day job to pay the bills.
You can find his sculptures at Concord University, private yards, city streets and at Tamarack, in Beckley West Virginia, which features juried artists from across the state. Imagine pipes bent into abstractions of owls, turtles, and even the New River Gorge bridge. Some of his work, which can tower as tall 30 feet, is often inspired by petroglyphs from ancient drawings.
Mike traces his love of artmaking back to one day while he was growing up in Fayette County when his mother insisted that he and his brother go to school despite a blizzard.
“Everybody else was home sleigh riding, but my butt was in school,” Mike explained. “To give me something to do, [the teacher] brought me in one of those foot stools and gave me a box of chalk, and she told me to draw the solar system on the chalkboard. So I drew the solar system. It took me all day. What I really remember was coming into class the next day, and everybody was amazed at how cool it was. It was like little tours that came into the classroom. They brought in another chalkboard so they didn’t have to erase it. Yeah, that felt pretty good.”
That was the first time Mike realized he had something special to share. As a middle-schooler, a mischievous Mike took his drawings from chalkboards to, well, other surfaces.
“I remember seeing airbrushed T-shirts, and I’m thinking, [I’d] been graffiti painting all over Fayette County,” Mike admits. “Why not take it down to a small scale and put it on a shirt? So yeah, let me say I did a fair amount of graffiti painting all around Oak Hill. Sorry, Mom and Dad.”
Mike also was helped along the way by some of his family in Roanoke, Virginia, especially his infamous Aunt Leona.
“She moved to Roanoke to work for the railroad,” Mike notes, “and she was a horse-snuff-dipping, cigar-smoking, drinking, hard woman. But she was cool.”
Mike’s cousin Tom had a blacksmith shop in Aunt Leona’s garage. That’s where Mike heated up his first piece of metal.
Mike went on to study art at Concord University (then Concord College). He moved to New Mexico, where he learned from other metal sculptors and discovered petroglyphs, or rock carvings left by the Pueblo Indians.
“I would get on my mountain bike and go out to these things and spend hours taking photographs of them and so forth and so on.” Mike says. “I was just mesmerized. . . . There’s a language in that. “
He eventually brought that inspiration back to West Virginia and blended it with his affection for our state and its lush scenery.
Mike's Day Job
Mike keeps his humor on the job. I even notice a “no fishing” sign hung on a cement tank full of sludge.
“We have one in the lab also that says ask for free sample,” Mike giggles. “Comic relief at the sewage plant is essential to the job because it gets a little crappy now here sometimes.”
Mike’s plumbing experience goes way back. Growing up in Fayette County, he heard about the days when indoor toilets were first introduced to the area.
“My mother’s father was a manager in the mines, so they were the first people in Whipple to have a flushing toilet. Ya know, everything else just went out to the creek,” he laughs. “So it was a pretty big deal.”
Mike has deep roots here. He says his ancestors were Italian immigrants and native Cherokee. Mike’s parents also grew up in Fayette County, where bartering was a way of life.
“My parents did it on a fairly decent scale,” Mike said. “They still do it to this day. They’re antique collectors, so. . . . If you need your grass cut and this person wants a nice cabinet out back that my mom’s been collecting for 20 years, she’ll get her grass [cut] for the summer, and he’ll get the cabinet.”
Mike learned to be resourceful, too. He says it was often a matter of survival. He recalls gathering glass bottles with his mother along the side of the road as a kid in Oak Hill, for extra cash.
“Remember when you could take bottles back and get three cents for them? Yeah, that was our job on Saturday morning. We’d steal a buggy from the A&P, or borrow it or whatever you want to call it because we always took it back, but we took it back full of bottles. Then, when I wanted money, I’d go get bottles myself, with my friends.”
He remembers those days fondly. But they weren’t easy, care-free days.
“It was pretty tough, and that struggle got passed down to all of us,” Mike explains as he wipes his nose. “It basically taught you if you want it, you gotta go get it. Gotta find a way to do it. Do it without breaking the law; my parents taught me that, too, which we didn’t always succeed at, you know,” Mike said as he chuckled.
Today, there are lots of colorful walls adorned with paintings and metal sculptures in Mike’s home. Relying on that time-tested tradition of bartering, Mike has collected hundreds of pieces of art by trading his own work. It’s taken some growth and courage, but he’s making money selling his art, too.
“I don’t know too many people like myself that can take any kind of metal and turn it into something. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point because I just want to make people happy, and I do make people happy, but now it’s just business coming into that fold.”
Mike has helped to create a Youtube channel for the Town of Athens. The page explains how what flows out of your toilet is treated at a plant. Mike is planning on retiring soon from the sewage treatment plant so he’s taken on a young apprentice. He plans to work more on his art but these days, he’s getting help from his son, Willie, especially when it comes to the digital presence of his work. As he teaches Willie to weld, his son helps out with social media. So it seems the dependable barter practice of Mike’s past, is still helping to take him forward.