By: Mike Schoeffel
By now, being called a “geek” is commonplace — anyone who’s focused on a niche art form, or deeply immersed in a hobby, might receive the compliment. But when you’ve been brought up to be a “devout nerd,” as Raymond Johns III says he was, you have to raise geekiness to new levels.
“There was no such thing as being just a Star Wars fan or just a Trekkie [Star Trek fan] in my household,” says Johns. “So I think geeky covers all my bases. I do random projects — whatever strikes my fancy — but they’re almost always nerdy in some way.” Considering that the welder’s creations include Thor’s hammers and lightsabers, it remains an apt adjective.
The Arden-based artist created Wukong Welding to brand his desire for fashioning such creations. It’s even in his tagline: “Random geekery made real through the power of metal fusion.”
Though he takes commission requests through his Facebook page, Johns sells the majority of his products at Eco Depot Marketplace in Asheville, which features a collective of like-minded makers who strictly use recycled materials. “Everyone there salvages what they work with,” Johns explains. “I don’t buy pre-cut plates of steel. I go to the junkyard, and so does everyone else at the Eco Depot.”
Johns has been into crafts since he was young, learning to knit, crochet, and sew from his mother and grandmother, before eventually picking up leatherwork, woodwork, and even flintknapping — a type of stonework, used to make weaponry, that stretches back to prehistoric times. He decided to attend welding school a few years back, mainly because he enjoys the tactile nature of the medium: “When you make something out of metal, it just feels right. There’s a distinction to it.”
While Johns was in welding school, a then-second-year student named Moses Soto — who now owns Papa Mo’s Metal Works in Asheville — brought in a metal wreath he’d been working on for a touchup. Johns had been doing straight-line welds on a scrap piece of metal for “two months or so,” as he recalls, so seeing the artistic side of the craft up close was a lightbulb moment.
“I thought ‘Wow, I want to be doing that instead of practicing — like I should be,’” he says. “So I used that as an excuse to start making things, while continuing to practice [traditional welding].”
That eagerness to experiment led to the genesis of Wukong, which takes its name from the main character (aka the Monkey King) in a Chinese epic. “I also needed a word that started with ‘W,’ so I figured that’d be nice alliteration,” he adds. His Wukong projects allow him to utilize his full skill set, “from leatherwork to fabric painting to etching.”
Some of the lighter pieces Johns sells are used for decor and as part of costumes, while heavier works, sought by collectors, are for meant for display. But it’s the way all his products blur the line between fantasy and reality — and the joy that sense of surrealism brings — that the proudly nerdy maker finds most fulfilling.
“Surprising a 3-year old with a miniature Thor’s hammer, or a man-child with a full-sized Thor’s hammer, is pretty awesome,” he says. “That reaction of someone seeing something they’d never thought they’d see in real life — that’s what keeps me going.”
Raymond Johns III, Arden, Wukong Welding. The artist’s work is represented by Eco Depot Marketplace (408 Depot St. #100, in the River Arts District, ecodepotmarketplace.com). For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see Wukong Welding on Facebook (also @Wukong_Welding on Instagram).