Walt Mendenhall will be the first to tell you that you can take the pilot out of the farm, but you sure cannot take the farm out of the pilot.
The Willamette, Oregon native grew up on his family’s 200-acre cattle farm and earned a degree in agriculture, with every intention of returning home. Unfortunately, when Mendenhall graduated in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, he discovered he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I didn’t want to get drafted, so I joined the Air Force,” he said.
In flight school, he took the track that would lead him to becoming an instructor pilot in Arizona before leaving the military with the rank of captain.
Returning to his roots seemed the reasonable thing to do.
“I just wanted to go back and farm,” he said.
After discovering metal sculptures during a visit to a state fair, Mendenhall, who had rudimentary welding experience, bought a welding torch and set off to hone his craft. Neighbors started noticing the quality of his sculptures about the same time that prices dropped on wheat, prompting Mendenhall to reassess the realities of farming.
“I figured I could make it with metal sculptures,” he said.
Mendenhall began a grueling schedule that included working the family farm, creating metal sculptures during free time and participating in outdoor art festivals on weekends. He later would add art shows at shopping malls across the country to his to-do list.
The concept proved profitable but unsatisfying.
“I didn’t like being away from home that long,” Mendenhall said.
At the insistence of his new wife, Mendenhall moved to Florida in 2012, marking a shift in subject matter for the self-taught sculptor, who found himself crafting tropically themed sculptures along with his renditions of mountains and pines.
He works steel, copper and bronze to represent nature’s patterns, contrasting stainless with bronze for added visual appeal.
In January, Fifth Avenue Art Gallery in the Eau Gallie Arts District hosted Mendenhall’s latest show, “West Coast-East Coast,” which presents both ends of the spectrum in his subject matter.
He may be a Floridian now, but Mendenhall still has roots in Oregon, where his son farms the family property.
“My heart is still out West,” he said.
To see Mendenhall’s works, go to mendenhallstudio.com.