October 2015 – After landing in Paris, Texas, we dodged some serious rain storms as we made our way across the state. All thoughts of dallying in the area evaporated when the world’s strongest hurricane, Patricia, showed up on Mexico’s Pacific coast and decided to join forces with another storm so they could march together across the southern states. We alternated between hunkering down and sprinting until we finally got out of harm’s way in New Mexico. There, the fringe edges of the storm created some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
Years ago, when we first started RVing full-time, we crossed New Mexico from east to west on US-380 on our first journey after picking up our new trailer outside Dallas. This road is a wonderful alternative to either I-40 or I-10, and it lies right between them, passing through miles and miles of wide open ranch land.
What struck me back then was that almost every ranch had a beautiful sign over the gate that was crafted in sheet metal. Each one depicted various scenes from the region, and they gave the landscape a humorous and artsy touch.
When we decided to travel this route once again, I vowed to capture some of these creative metal art signs with my camera as we passed. Unfortunately, the ranch gates come up so fast that after each shot I was moaning, “Darn, this one’s blurry too!” (or cut off, or indistinguishable against the background).
Then we arrived in Tatum, New Mexico.
As we slowed down going through town, we noticed that every single street was adorned with a wonderful metal art sign.
How cool is that?! We climbed out of the RV and began walking around town, admiring the fantastic variety of metal street signs on every street corner.
Some were images of classic desert creatures and plants, with flying eagles, cholla cactus and howling coyotes featured prominently as they did what desert creatures do in New Mexico. But other signs humorously depicted people living their lives and doing what people do.
I was captivated by the clever street signs and got a huge kick out of walking up and down every street in town to see what kind of image was on display at the next corner.
US-380 goes right through town, but the townsfolk know the road locally as “Broadway,” and a buffalo marked one corner of this important street in town.
Turning to face another corner on Broadway, I was bemused to see that the letter B had vanished from the sign, and below the flying birds the sign now read, “Roadway.” I looked for the B on the ground all around the sign, thinking that it might have blown off in a windstorm, but it was nowhere to be found.
Ths fun metal artwork isn’t limited to street signs. As I walked further afield, I discovered several inviting park benches, each decorated with a different western theme as well.
I love it when a town has a theme and has invested in decorating itself with art of some kind or another. But who was responsible for all this funky metal art in this tiny town of 839 people in New Mexico? At the far west end of town, we began to get some clues. We found a big building surrounded with metal art of all shapes and sizes. A sign above the building said, “Metal Art by Tex Welch.”
I really wanted to meet this guy, Tex, and ask him about the street signs and find out if he was the one who’d made them, and if perhaps he had made the many fabulous arches at the entrances to the ranches we had just passed. Unfortunately, his workshop was closed. We wandered back to his shop a little later, and it was still closed.
Little did we know that winds of change have come to the lively metal art scene in Tatum, New Mexico.
Down at the opposite end of town, at the far east end, I came across a huge American flag made of painted stones set in the ground. Four flags were flying next to it – the New Mexico and Texas state flags, the American flag and the POW flag. Each was made of sheet metal and flew in a perfect ripple. In front of the flags, a group of soldiers were planting an American flag in the ground, reminiscent of Iwo Jima, and beneath their feet were the words: Support Our Troops.
Behind this nifty scene there was a building surrounded by metal cactus, crosses, cowboys and turkey vultures. A sign on the building said, “Poor Boy’s Metal Art.”
I tromped around a little bit, hoping to find someone working outside, when I heard happy whistling coming from behind the building. I went around back, and there was a guy hovered over a workbench, whistling to his heart’s content, as happy as a man can be.
I called out to him, and he introduced himself as Juan Manuel Carbajal. That’s a mouthful! I had him repeat it and spell his last name until I could say it right, rolling “r” and all.
“Let me show you my current project,” he said with a huge grin as he gestured towards his workbench. “This is a little finer than the street signs… it’s more indoor art than outdoor.” The bench was covered with smaller pieces. He picked one up and I couldn’t resist taking a photo. He absolutely radiated happiness as he showed off his artwork.
He told me he was originally from the city of Cuatémoc in Chihuahua, Mexico, but had lived here for decades. He reminded me of our friend Alejandro Ulloa in Ensenada, Mexico, who had done the extraordinary metal fabrication on our boat, creating our solar panel arch with polished welds. He, too, was truly passionate about his work. It isn’t often that you find people who genuinely loves what they do. Juan and Alejandro are two of the lucky ones.
“I apprenticed under Tex,” Juan explained to me when I asked about the metal art workshop at the other end of town. “He’s the one who made all the street signs here. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been well,” he said with a sigh.
I asked Juan if he’d made any of the signs around town, and he said he’s done a few, “And I donated my display with the flags and the troops out in front to the town, so Tatum will have it no matter what happens to me.” How wonderful for the town to be gifted such a unique, patriotic work of art.
Juan went back to his workbench, and I continued roaming around town. He had said to check out the metal art built into the metal fencing nearby, and there were some terrific images there.
I think he also has done some of the painted metal art that appears around town.
I just love it when we come across unusual people and places like this! I had hoped simply to get a few fly-by images of ranch gates as we traveled on US-380 from Texas to Arizona, but instead we found the heart of the metal art magic in this region and had a chance to talk with one of the artists.
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Some other towns with themes that we’ve enjoyed in our RV and sailing travels:
- Sarasota, Florida – The Tube Dude
- Roswell, New Mexico – Invasion of the Aliens
- Guanajuato, Mexico – Minstrels in Tunics and the Renaissance Spanish Poet, Cervantes
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Here’s a little more about Tatum, New Mexico: