History of Windward Studio and the Missouri Spinner
By Alva Hazell
It was in the late spring of 2001 that Chris Grace found himself driving along a stretch of Highway 64 just east of Louisburg, Missouri, when something caught his attention, something moving and yet staying in place. It was something that woke memories and thoughts of a simpler time, and yet it was well grounded in the world of contemporary art. It moved with a silent beauty while it shared its hypnotic movement with each passerby. It stood independent of other structures along the highway and towered nearly sixteen feet into the air. It was a piece of kinetic art that guarded the highway and welcomed road weary travelers with its soft movement. There was no apparent identification nor was there any obvious reason for this soft spinner to be along that stretch of highway. Curiosity and a desire to learn more about this Spinner nudged Chris to begin an investigation about this weather vane/ windmill / piece of kinetic art.
Chris began his search for the manufacturer of this sculpture. After several weeks of phone calls and a few stop-in visits with locals around the Louisburg area, his search culminated with a phone call in November 2012.His journey led him to the doorsteps of Gary Dolan, a college graduate with a major in chemistry. He was a self-taught artist/welder, and he used his skills to produce farm tools.
The original Spinner was a result of having an excess of large hoops that he used to make round bail holders for the farm. Gary had been building the Spinners in his shop in Trenton, Missouri, for several years after the first sculpture. He studied art alongside his wife who was an art major in college. Trenton is a small town of 6,000 inhabitants just north east of Kansas City. That is where Gary began to build his spinners on demand, each one with all the care and precision available in his small self-made shop. He had sold many of them over the years to friends and tourists from all over the country.
Chris sought assistance from a long time friend Tony Nichols. He wanted to investigate the possibilities of taking over the construction and redesign of these curious spinners. In an earlier communication, Gary had expressed a desire to retire or at least slow down from his welding and farming work and wanted to sell the wind sculpture part of his business to the right person. It had to be someone who would appreciate it as he had for so many years. There were several interested people, but none fit the profile needed to carry on the construction and placement of these beautiful pieces of kinetic art. By March of 2013 Chris was driving back to Lebanon with a trailer full of parts and pieces as well as templates and tools uniquely designed for the purpose of building the spinning pieces of art.
Gary had given Chris and Tony a crash course on the construction and process for making the wind driven piece of kinetic art. Notes were taken and rough drawings were made in hopes to remember all the stages and procedures in this construction process. Chris and Tony found an available shop location and immediately began moving in with the tools, parts, and plans.
Their shop is located just west of Lebanon on old Route 66.
Tony very quickly began the construction and minor redesign of these graceful wind art pieces. He in no stranger to the arts, as is apparent in his design skills and photography background, and also worked as a toolmaker for much of his life. His respect for the metal and love of design coupled with his desire for perfection in his work was evident in the attention to details in this new business.
Tweaking and modifying the original pattern until it was technically perfected was the primary goal before they went into production. Trial and error, modifications and re-design became the production goal. It wasn’t long until Chris and Gary launched their first official Wind Spinner. After testing their redesigned prototype over time and in harsh weather conditions, the designers were satisfied with their production technique, and more spinners spun in the shop. They new spinners became a reality that climbed from Chris’s vision. “Missouri Spinners” were born; they now line the highways and farm roads of southern rural Missouri.
Chris recalls his first sale with fond memories. “It was to a business owner in Waynesville, Missouri,” he said. “He had seen one on the highway just east of Conway, Missouri, on Interstate I44. That is where I have one set up for display. He said it looked like a fun thing, so he ordered one, and we delivered it and set it up. That was a fun day.”
Chris and Tony both remembered the first out-of-state sale. As Chris recalls, “It was in Southern Iowa. It was sold to a small farm owner. The buyer talked about the days of windmills and how it made him feel to see them lining farm lands. He felt it was a fun thing to see as the wind re-directed it causing the blades spin. We set it up behind his old family farm house.”
It generally takes two people about thirty minutes to move it into place and secure it to the ground. They have delivered as many as four at a time to some clients and shipped them as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, to a landscape company where they are re-sold as kinetic sculptures for high-end yard gardens, as far northeast as New York City, and as far south as Tubac, Arizona.
Today Chris and Tony work in a 5000 sq. ft. shop and produce Missouri Spinners one at a time as many as one a week. Each Spinner is made by hand. Chris will tell you as you visit his workshop, “Every one we build is given the most scrutinizing care.” They are wind sculptures that turn and move freely with the slightest breeze. Each piece of wind art looks to move as directed by silent breezes. They are contemporary weather vanes.
As you drive the highways and back roads of Missouri and you approach a Missouri spinner, you will feel the urge to slow down and take a closer look. The spinner will be telling you the wind direction and the speed while it casts brilliant reflections of light off the stainless blades that will beckon you into a calmer state. While you drive past one of the spinners, know Chris and Tony will be somewhere in the back of a 5000 sq. ft. studio working on the construction of a new Missouri Spinner.