Man of Steel “Topiary Joe” Uses Lincoln Electric Welders to Build Art
Joe Kyte makes his living at the creative nexus of metal sculpting and horticulture. Known for years as “Topiary Joe,” the Tennessee native and traveling artist has spent the past two decades building plant sculptures on metal frames of his own design and construction. Crafted with the help of a Lincoln Electric AC225 stick welder – aka the buzzbox – Kyte’s work is on display all over the world, from California to Jamaica to Guatemala to London.
Kyte, who calls himself “a landscaping sculptor,” uses 3/8-inch rebar or 3/8-inch smooth round bar to craft the framework for the sculptures. “The medium is the steel,” he says. “But instead of building these big pieces in my shop and then shipping them all over the world, I’ll make them right there at the site of the installation.”
To date, the sculptures have included everything from dinosaurs to herds of elephant and other large and small members of the animal kingdom. Vintage cars are also a popular segment of his work. Most of the pieces serve as the framework for lush vegetation, but in some cases the metalwork remains at least partially exposed. Regardless, his work is a fascinating juxtaposition of the industrial and the agricultural.
It’s not surprising that a pursuit this whimsical would have its roots in the Disney experience. Kyte was in his early 20s when he first saw pictures of topiaries at Disneyworld, and he asked his father – an electrician and a welding hobbyist since before World War II – how such a thing could be constructed. The answer was intuitive and instructive at the same time. “He happened to have some rebar sitting there,” Kyte recalls. “He said, ‘Well, they just bend it into shape like this to make all their curves, and they probably just weld it in place. And if they want to take off a bit here and there, they just cut it by turning it up a little bit.’” Joe’s dad then demonstrated by using his table vise to bend the rebar and his Lincoln Electric AC225 stick welder to join a few sample pieces together.
The lesson sparked a hobby that later became a career. After a few years with Grodan Group®, where he developed professional greenhouse products, Kyte began subcontracting to build topiary sculptures for Disney’s Epcot Center in the early 1990s. The relationship with Disney was Kyte’s launching pad to start his own topiary business. These days, he and his two partners – Paul Forkner and Lester Harris – complete almost 100 projects a year.
Typically, he’ll pull into town in his 18-foot trailer outfitted with a table vise, a Lincoln AC225 stick welder and other basic gear. He’ll source his rebar and other building materials from local outlets as well. As far as his preferred welding process, Kyte likes to keep it simple. “I stay with the basics,” he says. “Just give me my old stick box. It works for me.”
When the project takes him beyond driving distance, he’ll pick up an AC225 at a local Home Depot or similar home-improvement store. It’s a more convenient option than pulling his own unit out of his shop and transporting it across the country – or halfway around the world, as is sometimes the case.
And when the work is done, he donates the welder to a worthy recipient. “I’ve donated four of them in California, two in the Dominican Republic, two in Jamaica, one in England, one in Ireland, one in Chile, one in St. Thomas, one in Mexico, and one in Guatemala,” he says. “I give it to the person who needs it the most – maybe the local guy whom they’ve sent to help me finish the project, the guy who needs to make a living. I try to look at who is the most in need or who is the most creative, and that person gets my welder when the project is finished.”
Vintage cars figure prominently in Kyte’s work for a reason. They’ve been his passion since he was a teenager, and when he’s not building topiaries on the road, he’s restoring collectible cars in his body shop back home in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. His most current batch includes a ’62 Mercedes SEb coupe, a ’59 Mercedes 220S Ponton sedan, a ’47 Pontiac Torpedo, a ’66 Suburban emergency squad truck, a ’53 GMC pickup truck, and a ’75 Porsche 914. The restoration work tends to require a finer finish than the topiary frames, so some TIG work in the shop is not uncommon, says Kyte.
One of his front-burner projects is “Francesca,” a ’66 Cutlass convertible. “We call her Francesca because she’s like Frankenstein’s wife,” says Kyte. “We did a frame-off restoration, but one rear fender alone was five pieces. We pieced it all together with some MIG welding and it looks pretty good. Sometimes we sell the cars for profit, or we’ll trade them for something better. I’m now up to car number 233 since I was 13.”
Whether he’s MIG welding old car frames or using stick to build brand new works of art, Kyte has turned to Lincoln Electric almost exclusively since his earliest welding projects two decades ago.
“It’s just easy to use,” he says. “I’ve tried a few other machines along the way, but in the end I just came back to Lincoln. I’ve recommended Lincoln equipment all the time. I see guys using all this complicated equipment and I tell them, ‘Go for the simplicity. Go for the reliability.’”
*The above project images and descriptions have been published to show how individuals used their ingenuity for their own needs, convenience and enjoyment. Only limited details are available and the projects have NOT been engineered by the Lincoln Electric Company. Therefore, when you use the ideas for projects of your own, you must develop your own details and plans and the safety and performance of your work is your responsibility.