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A Welder’s Whimsy

Life goes on for local artist and stroke survivor Tesi Sanchez-Halpert

By Allison Costa—Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez

 

eet Winston the dog. He’s a curious little fellow, with doorknobs for feet, ax blades for shoulders, and jowls made from horseshoes. Though he’s made of hard, rusty metal, he appears lovable and happy. He is one of Tesi Sanchez-Halpert’s latest creations. Known for her ability to transform scrap metal into whimsical home and garden sculptures, this Moorpark resident and stroke survivor has an inspiring story to tell.

Some may call her an artist, others a welder, but when asked about her work, Tesi refers to it as play. Standing in her driveway on a chilly December morning surrounded by her “babies,” as she often calls her sculptures, and piles of scrap metal (old tricycles, bike chains, pitchforks, and license plates), she spoke about the hours she spends in her workshop. Though welding is no easy feat, she says, “I call it my play time. It’s my stress reliever. It makes me happy.”

While she works with cold scrap metal and heavy steel tools, there is a softness and warmth in Tesi that is apparent the moment you meet her. Above the tools in her workshop hangs a simple sign that reads “Live. Laugh. Love,” and these words describe this artist perfectly. She lives her life with loads of laughter, embraces everyone she meets with love, and lives life to the fullest, even in the face of adversity. And all of this comes through in the flirty, sassy, smile-inducing characters that are her artwork.

Tesi grew up on a ranch at the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, in a home full of children, a place where imagination was prized. Tesi would take long hikes, often finishing with a stop by her father’s junk pile, where she would often see faces and animals amongst the debris. Her first creation was for a tenth grade school project: a horse made from an old hammer, a large hinge, and two horseshoes that her father helped her weld.

The long-time physical education teacher at Channel Islands High School was 48 years old when she suffered a stroke in 2004. Double vision, difficulty speaking, and problems with balance were just some of the obstacles she has worked to overcome over the past six years, alongside her devoted husband, Dan, who arranged physical therapy, speech therapy, caregivers, and a gym membership to help her recover her balance. “He wanted me to get better; he wouldn’t stop,” she says. And he was the one who, after a short while, encouraged Tesi to go back outside—back to her welding gear —to play.

Though no longer able to work as a teacher, Tesi keeps herself busy raising awareness about the signs of stroke. Her scraggly little dog, Dude, acts as her stroke awareness mascot. Tesi often dyes his ears red, using them as a conversation starter, an opportunity to educate people about the signs of stroke. Though she no longer does public speaking engagements on the topic, she always includes a list of the signs of stroke on the back of her biography at gallery showings.

Referring to life after her stroke, Tesi says, “I love my new life as an artist because I have the opportunity to support different organizations by donating my artwork … I love knowing that my art is doing good.” The Brain Injury Center in Camarillo, Moorpark Hospice, and various local art galleries are among those on the list of lucky recipients.

At Tesi’s gallery shows, visitors meet feisty animal characters with clever, joyful names. “Do I Look Fat in These Feathers?” shows a silly self-conscious chicken in an old birdcage, and “Life Is a Balancing Act” shows three chickens teetering precariously atop a unicycle. The sense of whimsy in the latter is so palpable you can almost hear the squeals of laughter and giggles of childhood.

“I like to create laughter. It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve had. Laughter helps you forget your troubles,” she says. And laugh you will when you come face to face with “King of the Remote,” a pot-bellied chicken with an old spoon for a cap lounging lazily and staring blankly at a large television made from an old tractor filter.

Her way of seeing and interpreting the world is what sets Tesi apart as an artist. As Tom McMillin, a close friend and retired art professor, says, “Her work reflects the insight of a visual poet with the wit of a standup comic. Her work is highly sophisticated yet borders on hilarious. Picasso would have been envious.” Emily Thompson, of the Buenaventura Art Association, refers to Tesi’s sculptures as tactile, walk-around, 3-D artwork, saying: “Everyone reads the titles, comments, and loves them.”

Despite her talent, Tesi remains humble; and despite her continuing battle to recover from her stroke, she is still one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. “You have to make the best of what you have,” says Tesi. And that she has, in both her artwork and in her life.

01-01-2011

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