Donald Munro

At 90, Chris Sorensen still sculpting Fresno’s arts scene

Chris Sorensen: Fresno's Man of Steel turns 90

Longtime Fresno metal sculptor Chris Sorensen, one of the founders of ArtHop, who still works every day, turns 90. Video by John Walker/jwalker@fresnobee
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Longtime Fresno metal sculptor Chris Sorensen, one of the founders of ArtHop, who still works every day, turns 90. Video by John Walker/jwalker@fresnobee

Ah, to be young and foolish and 90.

In terms of nonagenarian scenarios, it’s hard to beat the one welded together by Chris Sorensen:

Days spent tinkering in a vast, cluttered, one-man’s-junk-is-another’s-treasure-laden art studio bearing your name. Enough welding torches and scrap metal at your disposal to piece together a Frank Gehry building. Your fanciful metal sculptures found in private collections and in front of public buildings all over your adopted hometown.

A healthy bank account, a wry sense of humor, an artist son willing to follow in your footsteps. A crackling imagination that can turn a shelf full of white 5-gallon metal cans, say, into a spectacular 3-foot-high goat.

And then there are the artists.

They surround him, idolize him, purr at him, learn from him, seek his approval. Over the past 25 years, the Chris Sorensen Studio, which he started in a warehouse filled with decades-old junk, expanded as the landlord slowly whittled that junk away. More than 40 artists now rent spaces — the cheapest at just $135 a month — in a warren of rough-hewn studios that spill out from a main gallery area and large “Sorensen Hall.”

Every year the studio celebrates Sorensen’s birthday with a big public party. (He likes to say his birthday wish is to make it to his next birthday.) This year’s, his 90th, is a milestone. This is a man who helped start ArtHop, who elevated the Fresno art scene. Hundreds of people were expected to crowd into Sorensen Hall on Friday, June 26, for lunch and a chance to view an exhibition by 50 artist friends depicting and honoring Sorensen in a variety of media.

Friday wasn’t his actual birthday. Like the queen, Sorensen gets two: one celebrated by the public, then another on Tuesday, June 30, his actual 90th.

Some people might blanch at being at the center of it all. Not this birthday boy.

“You can’t praise Dad enough,” says his son, John Sorensen, who took over his father’s welding supply and auto-paint company when he retired. “He’s starved for attention, and he gets more attention than anyone I’ve ever met.”

If there’s one thing Sorensen likes more than making art, it’s making friends.

“As a kid, it used to drive me crazy,” his son says. “No matter where we went, Dad knew somebody, or seemed like he did. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate how gregarious and outgoing he is. I really like that about him.”

When Sorensen isn’t taking his welding torch to metal, the artist king can be found most mornings leisurely pedaling his three-wheel bicycle through the building: nosy and amiable, checking up on his loyal subjects, surveying his domain.

After years as a business owner, he sold out to his son and retired so he could “play,” he says. Soon he earned the nickname “Man of Steel.”

As Sorensen slowly makes his rounds on his bicycle, he’s quick with a nod and smile, a quip or two, perhaps a quick critique.

“He’s taught me a lot, not just about art, but about life,” says Amy Kohl, a diehard regular who staked a claim in the building’s welders studio soon after she wandered into the studio on a date in 2002 and never really left. “I think his love of life and people, and people’s love of him, is what keep him going.”

Sorensen never dreamed his retirement project would grow so big — or last so long. He chuckles when he thinks about the novel way he sold some of his art when he first retired.

“No one expected me to live to 90,” he says. “When I was 65, I sold some of my pieces for $100 a month for the rest of my life. I still get those checks.”

FROM SALESMAN TO ARTIST

Another thing that’s on the list of favorite things for Sorensen: going to lunch. He and his son have a standing date on Saturdays. (“Every Saturday Dad calls and asks, ‘You coming to lunch?’” his son says with a laugh.)

Tuesdays are another lunch tradition. Today Sorensen is joined at a nearby Chinese restaurant by Evany Zirul, a doctor-artist friend of his, and artist Kerby C. Smith, who volunteers his time for the studio in an administrative capacity.

I ask Sorensen — who with his denim shorts, black suspenders, baseball cap and fluorescent orange T-shirt looks like the world’s oldest CalTrans worker — how many years he’s been going to lunch with Zirul.

He holds up both hands, displaying nine normal digits and one that was hacked off. “Not nine and a half,” he says drily. (The real answer is six years.)

Sorensen is breezy, no question. (He likes to tell the story of how he once slept with Amelia Earhart. Turns out he was 5 years old when she came through Mendota and his parents put her in the same bed with him when they hosted her for the night.) He can even be breezy when it comes to safety, alas. A few years ago Sorensen got his right index finger caught in a piece of machinery and lost it in a flash.

Photos of the fresh injury are still tacked to the “Safety Wall of Shame” at Weco Supply Co., the business he sold to his son.

“He’s like the worst safety lesson in history,” his son says. “But I swear the next day he was doing stuff left-handed.”

Sorensen spent the first half of his life in mostly non-artistic pursuits. After childhood in Mendota, he moved to Fresno for high school (Fresno High Class of 1944), did a stint in the Navy at the tail end of World War II, and came back to Mendota to work in the family business, a machine works company.

In 1955 he ended up in Fresno for good and started Weco in 1963. He and his wife, Mitzi, had two children: John and Vicki.

His son turned out to be the catalyst that launched his father’s artistic career. John Sorensen was taking art classes at McLane High School and figured he’d try his hand at metal working, He talked his father, who had always been on the business side of things, into learning to weld together. They practiced on beer cans, which were still made of metal at the time, learning to cut out little flower designs.

1,000Sorensen’s estimate of how many sculptures he’s made

Ever the salesman, Sorensen put his newfound skills to work. He started making little metal sculptures for clients — or more accurately their wives. (This was a different time, after all.)

“I used my art to get a lot of business,” he says. “I’d find out what the wife’s name was, make her a little bouquet of flowers, made sure I got the business.”

In the early days especially, he estimates he gave about 90% of his art away. His first big piece was a donkey. He’s especially known for his largest pieces, including sculptures at Saint Agnes Medical Center, Community Regional Medical Center and Mammoth Oxygen in Madera.

He quickly developed an affinity for using only recycled metal in his works, and people started bringing him materials to use.

But Sorensen didn’t stop with metal sculptures. He was hungry to learn more. He ended up taking art classes at Fresno City College and Fresno State: ceramics, painting, wood carving. “Whatever I got into, I did a lot of,” he says.

That tendency for quantity over quality has been a mark of Sorensen’s artistic career, and he’s cheerful about it. (He’s made eight or nine giraffes alone; he’s lost track.) From an aesthetic point of view, some of his works are terrific and others less remarkable.

But he’s never thought of himself as a “brand” with a carefully controlled output. He thinks this way: Keep busy. Keep producing. Keep moving. He’s made more than 1,000 sculptures over the years, he guesses, and the same number of paintings.

Along with his prodigious output, Sorensen been remarkably generous with his time in encouraging artists like Kohl and Zirul in their pursuits, serving as adviser to both — and to others who have settled in the welders studio, a sprawling indoor/outdoor subsection of the larger studio. Crammed with bulky welding and metal-cutting equipment, some of it 50 years old, and an array of discarded machine parts and miscellaneous objects just waiting to be turned into art, it’s like a furnace of creativity. (Especially on a 100-degree day.)

Zirul, a retired head and neck surgeon, was also trained as an artist and welder, but recently became intrigued with using discarded metal hangers in her art, a favorite technique of Sorensen’s. She uses them to weld works that depict mostly the human figure in motion.

After several years of practice, she’s pretty good at it.

“She’s better than me now,” Sorensen says with a grin, finishing up lunch.

ALWAYS ANOTHER PROJECT

Getting older for Sorensen hasn’t been all play. He’s hard of hearing (although a bluetooth hearing aid he got six months ago seems to help). There have been health scares, from the serious (a tumor in his head, successfully removed) to the incidental (cataracts, also gone.) There are the aches and scars of a lifetime using his body in a world of heavy equipment.

Sciatica makes it painful for him to walk. He used to have an electric wheelchair to get around the studio, but switched to the bicycle, a suggestion from Zirul, to get more exercise.

He cares for his wife in the afternoons because her health is frail.

Keeping the studio open has been a labor of love. Cash was important, too. He estimates he’s put $100,000 into improving the building over the years.

“I’ll never get it out, and I don’t care,” he says. “Artists aren’t rich, and they need a place to go.”

Keeping the studio open has been a labor of love. Cash was important, too. Sorensen estimates he’s put $100,000 into improving the building over the years.

At the same time, Sorensen — who is famous for giving his art away or selling it for very little — has become so popular that even he has started pricing his works higher. (For his massive camel sculpture, weighing 1,500 pounds, he’s asking $20,000.) He always was a salesman, after all.

“I think he’s realizing he doesn’t have as much time left,” Kohl says. “I think he’s realizing what he’s worth.”

His son, working with Smith — who rents the spaces, curates shows and keeps the studio in order — has brought more fiscal discipline to the studio.

“It kind of breaks even right now,” John Sorensen says. “Kerby and I try to play the business aspect at least that much, saying it ought to at least generate enough to not cost Dad anything.”

John Sorensen has an art degree with a specialty in painting. He inherited one family business from his father and kept it going, and so he figures: Why not another?

He and Smith have talked about what would happen if Sorensen couldn’t continue his role at the studio.

“Would we want to shut it down? And we both decided, no, we both want to keep it going. He is so much the spirit of that place. I don’t know if it will survive without him. I’m hoping that between Kerby and me, we can fill that bill to some degree.”

John Sorensen has plans for the studio as well: He’s in the middle of installing a movie theater with plans to screen free films in the future.

For Chris Sorensen, talk of the future isn’t all that interesting, unless it’s tomorrow. When you’re 90, you really do take things day by day.

One of his newest pieces, the goat made from the white metal cans, is one of his best. He worked for months on it. With it he somehow captured a sense of movement. Of breath and life.

Also going along with the show featuring works in tribute to Sorensen, a concurrent retrospective-style show of a few dozen of his works that includes paintings, mobiles, works in clay and wire, animal and abstract metal sculptures. And the goat.

He’s walking through the welders studio now: his playground. And here, yes, he feels like he could live forever. “It’s never-ending,” he says. “That’s the fun part.” He walks by a line of old oxygen tanks dangling from the ceiling and points. “I’m going to make bells out of those.”

Chris Sorensen Birthday Show

Art preview

Through July 31

  • 9 a.m.-noon and 1:30-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, special hours for ArtHop (5-8 p.m. first Thursday and noon-4 p.m. second Saturday)
  • 2223 S. Van Ness Ave.
  • www.cmsartstudio.com, (559) 237-4934
  • Free
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