Artistic Artifacts

Jim McGhee's collection of artistic artifacts is all about utility and visual appeal.


| April 2006



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Jim and his mascot: “Wrench Man.” Wallace Keller, Mt. Horeb, Wis., one of Jim’s friends, created Wrench Man from wrenches, a little sheet metal and steel wool.

"There is beauty all around, if only we can see it," explains farmer, artist and tool collector Jim McGhee, Hollandale, Wis., as he looks at the fields surrounding his farm. "I am drawn to beautiful, utilitarian things just as I am drawn to this beautiful landscape." Jim is quick to point out that there is unsurpassed natural beauty in the world around him, but it is human creativity that compels him as a collector. "Look at the intricate details cast into this foot platform," Jim says. "Imagine the skill and accuracy of the people who carved the pattern for things like this."

Utility and visual appeal are the hallmarks of Jim's collection. He is particularly enthusiastic about cast pieces, at once artful and functional. "My collection is really a celebration of the creativity of the people who made these pieces," Jim says. "They must've cared about bringing a little visual joy to the person who used them every day."

As a student of the visual arts, Jim was just days away from completing his undergraduate degree when he was called home to help run the family dairy farm. Although he never looked back, while running the farm Jim still found time to hone his woodworking skills and was once contracted to build a large pipe organ - a project combining his love of art and music. Now retired from farming, he's found a way to combine the artist and the collector within by creating cast iron collages that engage the eye and the mind.

Iron art

Jim initially collected cast iron seats and tools because they were interesting to look at, relatively inexpensive and easy to find. He was especially interested in ornate objects with the company name worked into the piece. Likewise, he's collected hand tools where the principal structural web (and/or chord) has the maker's name or the brand cast through them, although many more simply have the identifying information cast as raised letters and numbers. In either form, the identity information proves useful for learning more.

As his cast iron collection grew, Jim wanted to learn more about individual items, so he searched for old catalogs, parts books and buyer's guides. "I use the buyer's guides to cross-reference part numbers," he says. That way, he can learn exactly what an old piece of cast iron was used for. Jim has a couple of intricate cast pieces he identified this way: a foot platform from a Plano Mfg. Co. Jones steel header, and a footrest from a Parlin & Orendorff stalk cutter. "I might buy an interesting piece because it appeals to me visually," Jim says. "Then I can have fun trying to figure out what it is and what it was used for."

As Jim studied his cast iron pieces, immersing himself in the history of the manufacturers, he was struck by the breadth and depth of relatively specific types of castings from an individual manufacturer. Understanding the pieces collectively helped him see the larger corporate picture. "I noticed I had groups of items made by one manufacturer at different times, or representing different brands of an individual company, and I thought about how they related to the history of that company," Jim says. "Integrating all of the little pieces helps me to understand the big picture." Understanding the integration, and wanting to display some of his items at shows, Jim looked at his collection in a new way.