TAMPA HEIGHTS-Dominique Martinez's creative and functional steel art can be seen throughout Tampa. Railings and furniture are at Oxford Exchange just west of downtown. A "turtle wall" is at a gated community on Gandy Boulevard. Two 9/11 memorials are at Steinbrenner Field and the Firefighters' Museum. The "Rogue Rhino" statue is at the Tampa Heights Community Garden.
But in recent months Martinez has been feeling more like the invisible artist. There was the recession which dampened sales. Then several months ago the city began construction projects on sewer and water lines along 12th Street, where his Channel District studio had opened nearly 10 years ago.
Segway tours routinely used to stop by to check out his latest artwork welded from steel and iron. They stopped coming.
"It was like a ghost town," Martinez said. "It's been a hard road."
But earlier this year he found a prime location for Rustic Steel Creations at 3919 N. Highland Ave., on a corner lot near the dividing line between Tampa Heights and South Seminole Heights.
Traffic is brisk on a busy roadway past a studio with 12,000 square feet compared to the 5,000 square feet at his Channel District address. It took 67 truckloads to move his art and materials to the new studio.
There are no Segway tours but neighbors are taking notice.
On Tuesday about eight residents, including adults and children, walked up after spotting the 20-foot steel dragon.
"Wow, that is creative," said Tim Walker. "That is neat."
Martinez invited the group to drop by in a few weeks. "It's going to be like a whole movie lot," he said.
For now Martinez and staff are sorting material and getting organized. A grand opening is being planned within the next month.
The bigger space and renewed visibility will make a difference.
"We can make bigger stuff and longer stuff," Martinez said. "Now the imagination goes wild."
He began his fascination with welding as a teenager who worked in a fabrication shop. Then a friend who had a shop made him an offer. Be careful, his friend said, but come after hours and work on what you want.
"I would go in at two o'clock in the morning and start making stuff," Martinez said.
Steel and iron can be unforgiving if you don't know what you are doing, he said. "But it can be your best friend, if you know what you are doing. I think of it as clay. I want to take it and manipulate it, bend it and mash it."
He describes his art pieces as custom-made and one-of-a-kind. Sometimes it is "industrial chic" but he does traditional art as well.
Among his artistic designs are fences, custom lighting, sconces, railings, staircases, butterfly art, large metal dogs with floppy ears, and bar stools in the style of Picasso and Dali. He works with new steel but has a special passion for salvaging scrap metal. Among his possessions, awaiting creative fruition, are cogs and parts from the Platt Street bridge.
Martinez often visits schools to talk about art. He will begin holding creative welding classes. He plans to open his studio for tours. Magnet school administrators and representatives of the Ringling Museum of Art have expressed interest.
"It's been very exciting," Martinez said. "It's been a good move."