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Homes

Front Porch: Carries a torch for steel

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published May 28, 2004

Meet 28-year-old Jimmy Calus. At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, he's unwinding in the living room of his restored 1927 bungalow in old Seminole Heights after a long shift at Liberty Waste and Recycling, where he works 55 hours a week as a mechanic on garbage trucks.

He also repairs industrial-sized trash compactors.

Oh, and he designs furniture, too.

Furniture? That's right. Stark, gorgeous, thoroughly modern furniture worthy of those tony showrooms in New York where you need an appointment to get in.

Take a look around his house.

A surreal lamp shaped from steel cubes spills light from the bottom, though it appears to illuminate the room from the top.

A 100-pound steel chair looks like the ultimate working man's La-Z-Boy.

Steel flowers and metal reeds of grass burst from concrete planters by the front door.

Such gritty-but-beautiful home decor items come straight from the imagination of a man more comfortable welding than decorating.

Calus, known to the art world as Jimmy Steel, finds his materials in the unexpected. He builds his furniture from oddly shaped slabs of steel rescued from broken down garbage trucks. A tall, rather willowy rectangle he used in a piece of sculpture in his living room was salvaged from a broken trash compactor at SunTrust Bank in downtown Tampa.

"I'm a very simple person, not an artsy-fartsy kind of guy," he explains.

He's drinking a Beck's and still in his navy-blue work shirt with the patch that says "Jimmy."

Well, actually, he's a little more complex than he lets on.

Trained as a welder, Calus makes serious art, edgy yet sensual with the kind of attitude that works in a clean, contemporary space. He's got Thelonious Monk playing on the stereo.

And he explains that he almost went to culinary school in Baltimore, but then decided to follow in his father's footsteps in the recycling business.

He's as revered for his barbecued ribs as he is for his design skills. So he built a sculptural yet ultra-functional barbecue/smoker and painted it bright Alexander Calder red.

Speaking of Calder, Calus counts the sculptor among his major influences and is building a large, kinetic steel sculpture in his back yard.

"The neighbors probably won't like it," he says. "But so far they haven't said anything. And Seminole Heights is known for its arts community."

One day, someone did notice. A man walking through the neighborhood, probably drawn to the sculpture, fell in love with Calus' red grill. He was a doctor from the Virgin Islands who commissioned Calus to make one for him.

The grill is actually a hexagonal cube with rain caps - much like you'd find on a big-rig truck - that control temperature. It seals up nicely, he says, and when he throws smoke chips in, they simmer into the meat of the ribs.

It's on wheels so he can cart dinner to his friends on the front porch.

"I'm famous for my ribs," he explains. "The secret is barbecue at a low temperature."

He's as proficient with a blow torch as he is in the kitchen. He recently converted the detached garage of his home into his welding studio, where he made a gorgeous minimalist, 100-pound chair for the Chairs for Charity project that kicks next month.

He calls it Fit for a King.

At first he thought he would shape it like the mathematical symbol for pi, but he didn't like the way it looked. The steel for the chair came off a broken-down garbage truck. He thought it had a nice curve to it.

He never paints his creations, though sometimes he'll throw a damp towel over something he's made and leave it in the back of his truck for a few days as a "controlled rust experiment."

The result is always raw and edgy but never too tough.

Sort of like Calus.

"Every bit of my work is about keeping steel in its natural state," he says. "And that's whatever state I find it in."

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 11:51:16]

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