The 76-year-old Walker Service Station sits just a block off of Main Street in Waynesville. Its windows are lined with old iron tools — and, less predictably, metallic fir trees and steel star ornaments.
A mix of the functional and the visionary is at work here, and Grace Cathey’s metal sculptures balance and complement the hard, oily garage run by her husband, Clayton Cathey.
While you’re waiting for your new tires to be installed or your radiator flushed, you can browse through the gallery in the waiting room or walk across the parking lot to the sculpture garden.
You may end up buying a steel trio of ancient-eyed wolves along with those new Michelins.
The sculptor is an energetic, friendly woman single-mindedly devoted to her work. She expresses a deep love for nature, and seemingly draws an equal amount of inspiration from the process itself. “I am always an artist,” she remarked recently, sitting behind the counter of the service station in early December. “I think about art all of the time.” Cathey’s been a welder for nine years.
And her blood runs rich in iron. “I say I’m a third-generation metal worker. I learned to appreciate metal from my father and what I know of my grandfather.” The latter was born in Germany, where he fashioned tools used to fix wheat-harvesting equipment. He then brought his family to this country, where he traded metalworking for working on the railroad.
Cathey’s father later became a locksmith hobbyist, and worked with old-fashioned keys and locks. “I had a passion to create and sell my work at a young age,” says his daughter. Raised in Florida, she moved to Western North Carolina as a young woman, in part to better experience the natural world and discover her calling. She studied weaving at Haywood Community College and spent 15 years working professionally in fiber art, selling bags, rugs and shawls. Later she became interested in metal sculpture, and returned to HCC — this time to study welding.
Cathey doesn’t view the medium switch as much of a stretch.
“Metal, to me, is a stiff fabric,” she offers. “Working with metal is like sewing — I work with it in many of the same ways: creating tucks, pleats, applique, and reverse-applique.” She favors steel, using a variety of finishes to give the pieces different colors and textures. She then blackens the surface through a heating process, and uses metal dyes to create red, green, and other finishes.
Metal is naturally considered hard and cold — but Cathey brings to it an organic softness and vitality. Her vision turns into frogs, lizards, hawks and roosters. Plant life, from gingko leaves to evergreen trees, also plays a predominant role. The work in her gallery — including functional pieces such as lamps, mirrors and tables — ranges from affordable, at $25 dollars, to more elaborate and expensive, at more than $1000. Besides selling at her own gallery, Cathey has work displayed in Asheville’s Grovewood Gallery and in the Seven Sisters Gallery in Black Mountain. Her outdoor sculptures can be found in downtown Waynesville and Hendersonville and at Chimney Rock Park.
But if there are more out-of-towners stopping by Walker Service Station these days, thank the 2005 edition of Rand McNally Atlas, which named Cathey’s gallery and sculpture garden a “Best of the Road” selection in its feature story on traveling through the Tennessee/North Carolina mountains.
“I get a lot of attention from working with metal,” she admits. “It’s a medium most women don’t work in.
“I love it, though. I often quote Confucius: ‘Choose a job you love and never work a day in your life.'”
Walker Service Station and Cathey’s Gallery and Sculpture Garden are at 136 Depot St. in Waynesville. To learn more about the artist, visit www.gracecathey.com. The online version of the Rand McNally Atlas “Best of the Road” feature can be found at www.randmcnally.com/pdf/BOTR_2005_Smokies.pdf