CENTRALIA — Driving down rural Highway T near Centralia, a T-Rex catches your eye. The dinosaur towers over travelers on the road below. Sculpted with pieces of scrap iron, the creature is surprisingly light — one could pick up the tail and tip it right over.
The dinosaur is one of many fantasy creations standing watch in the front yard of Centralia resident Larry Vennard. Vennard, 65, says that after welding his creatures for so many years, he began seeing sparks in his sleep.
“My eyes started going after so many years, just the constant burn,” he said.
Years of working construction and welding on the railroad have taken a physical toll.
“It's a lot of uncompromising positions when you got a welding hood on and you're trying to lay underneath something,” he said. “It hurts every time you lay on the ground, so you don't do it no more.”
A car wreck in the late '90s left him with a back injury and forced him to retire from the construction business. After a number of surgeries, doctors told Vennard he would no longer be able to weld. He didn’t let the injury stop him, however, and found creative ways to keep building art with minimal pain.
Vennard said he has always been a bit artsy. He started off with ornamental iron and scroll work, gradually making his pieces more complex.
"The more pieces it took to put it together to make it look good, the better it was, you know?" Vennard said.
Several years ago, he began saving scrap iron in order to form the skeletons of what he calls his "critters."
"There was a real decline in the little farm operations that were just shutting down," he said. As the farms went under, piles and piles of iron were left behind. Vennard saved the interesting things and added them to his "bone pile."
"It was terrible because I'd cut up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that people had put a lot time and labor into building," he said.
Today, he exhibits the spirit of those small farms in the creatures that decorate his property. Dinosaurs, an archer, an alligator and even a giant roly poly bug. Vennard said he was drawn to create dinosaurs in particular because there was no single way to do it.
"I can't build horses the way people want them to be built … I'm too abstract," he said. "But I can build dinosaurs because nobody can tell me that ain't how a dinosaur used to look 'cause nobody ever seen one."
The creation process differs for each piece. The bigger pieces, like the T-Rex, need to be suspended so he can place the backbone before adding legs and a tail. Other pieces, like the triceratops made with an old oil tank, were welded together, torn apart and welded again numerous times before he was happy with it.
"It was so hard to figure out the skirt and it's just the little doodads you put on it to give it life," Vennard said. "That makes it look like it's breathing, you know, instead of just an innate piece of steel."
While he will always have the mind of an artist, Vennard is slowing down. He uses a golf cart to get around his property and hasn’t worked in his shop in months. He's actively looking for an apprentice to assist with several half-finished sculptures, including a woodpecker waiting for its legs and wings.
He remains on the lookout for scraps to turn into bones, anything that he can use to "trick the eye into believing it’s some other part of something else."
And, if the number of visitors from across the country who show up on his front steps every week are any indicator, the trick is working.
"I just love tinkering," Vennard said. "It just is all in the eye of the beholder."